THE THREE STATION MASSES OF CHRISTMAS
Over the first three Sundays of Adventide the Station Churches of Rome trace out a beautiful theological lesson for us. The Church of the First Sunday of Advent, St. Mary Major, where the relic of Christ’s Crib is kept in Rome, takes us to Bethlehem where Christ was born: the Church of the Second Sunday of Advent, the Church of the Holy Cross at Jerusalem, which houses a large relic of the Holy Cross, takes us to Jerusalem. The Church of the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, at St. Peter’s in the Vatican, makes manifest the Kingdom of God. St. Peter’s, built over the tomb of St. Peter who was martyred there, is a public testament to the Power of Christ victorious over the Pagan Power of Rome. Together then we have the Mystery of the Incarnation (Bethlehem), the Mystery of the Redemption (Jerusalem), and the Reign of the Kingdom of God—the Kingdom of God which, for us Christians, is already within us and without us. At the Second Advent of Christ that Final Victory of the Kingdom of God over all hostile powers will be absolute.
This is the preparatory exercise during Advent. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day it is repeated in the celebration of the Feast. There are three distinct Masses of Christmas: 1) the Mass at Midnight, 2) the Mass at Dawn, and 3) the Mass During the Day. At Midnight on Christmas Eve the Romans processed to St. Mary Major. Then, at dawn, the processed to the Church of St. Anastasia for a second Mass. Finally, they went to St. Peter’s (originally) for the third glorious Mass of Christmas in the bright light of day.
These Masses replicated the Processions of the Christians in the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve the Christians assembled at the Grotto of Christ’s Nativity in Bethlehem. They consecrated the hour of the Lord’s Birth by the celebration of Mass in the middle of the night. After their Midnight Mass they returned to Jerusalem, arriving at early dawn. In the Church of the Resurrection they then celebrated a second Mass, as the Shepherds had discovered Mary with her Child on Christmas morn. Later in the day, the Christians gathered in Jerusalem’s main church for yet a third celebration of the Savior’s Nativity. This is the origin of the “Three Masses” of Christmas in the Roman Liturgy.
As the Jerusalem custom was adapted to the City of Rome, the Midnight Mass was fittingly celebrated in the “Bethlehem” of Rome, St. Mary Major. The second Mass at dawn, the “Shepherds’ Mass”, was celebrated at the Church of St. Anastasia (the Greek word anastasis means “resurrection”). The Third Mass during the day was held at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. On the First Day of Christmas then the three Station Masses give us a sweeping view of the Christ-Life: the Mystery of the Incarnation, the Mystery of the Redemption, the Mystery of the Reign of the Kingdom of God and Christ’s Second Advent.
In The Church’s Year of Grace Pius Parsch draws out the mysterium to be found here:
The three Masses present a gradual intensification of the feast’s theology. Something of Advent still lingers in the midnight service...at dawn, the divine Light that appeared on earth under cover of night now rises like the sun...With the third Mass Christmas theology unfolds to its maximum, an outpouring of divine wisdom and love unto all men upon the face of the earth.