Question: Why are there three different Masses on Christmas day? May a priest offer more than one Mass on other days of the year?
Answer: People's natural enthusiasm often moves them to celebrate a joyous event at the earliest possible minute. Christmas certainly fits into the category of a joyous event, undiminished by the sorrowful events that precede Easter, prompting some of the faithful to begin their celebration at the stroke of midnight. For the early risers, dawn replaces midnight. And, of course, there are many others who will gather to celebrate our Lord's birth at a more "reasonable" hour. Hopefully, many Catholics will make the effort to attend two or even all three of these celebrations.
The Church makes use of these three times of celebration to present the Gospel message of our Lord in three different ways. At midnight we learn of the birth of the Infant Jesus in the relatively private surroundings of the stable. At dawn we hear about the more public presentation of Christ to the people He was going to redeem, represented by the shepherds. And, finally, in the third Mass we hear St. John's memorable account of the eternal Son of God, maker of all things, becoming incarnate to make us sons of God.
But, the celebration of Christmas goes well beyond these three Masses. Advent begins Christmas, for it sets the stage and gives the details of those waiting for the coming Messias. On December 28th we will hear of the Holy Innocents, murdered in Christ's place by King Herod. On January 1st and February 2nd, we observe our Lord's obedience to the Law of Moses; first with His circumcision, and forty days later with His presentation in the Temple. On January 2nd He is given the name "Jesus" mentioned by the Angel, and on the 6th appears to the Wise men. In some places feasts are observed commemorating the espousal of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph (January 23), the Expectation of our Lord's Birth (December 16th) and the flight into Egypt (February 17th).
In modern times the celebration of more than one Mass each day has been limited to Christmas and All Souls Day, and to occasions when a shortage of priests would leave the faithful without Mass or the means to receive Holy Communion when in danger of death. Celebrating two Masses within the day is called "bination" or "duplication," and three is called "trination." The priest must have good reason and at least the presumed permission of his bishop. He may not accept a stipend for the second or third Mass.
Some monastic communities and cathedral chapters may attend two or three different Masses on a given day (e.g. the Mass of the day, one of the Blessed Virgin, and another for the Souls in Purgatory), but these are usually offered by different priests, and are not cases of bination.
In the early centuries of Christianity, Mass was generally celebrated only on Sundays and Holy days. This quickly grew to add Wednesdays, Fridays, and then Saturdays. Daily Mass had become common by the sixth century, and nearly universal by the ninth century when many priests were celebrating multiple Masses each day. Pope Leo III (795-816) is said to have offered Mass as many as nine times a day.1
The Decretals of Gratian (dist. I, can. liii) and a decree of Alexander II (d. 1073) limited each priest to one daily Mass, except for certain feast days, or when multiple celebrations were actually necessary for pastoral reasons.2 The "certain feast days" included January 1, with a Mass in honor of our Lord's circumcision and a second in honor of the Mother of God; Holy Thursday, when the bishop would celebrate a Mass for the reconciliation of Lenten penitents, and another for the consecration of Chrism, in addition to the Mass of the Lord's Supper; the Nativity of St. John the Baptist; and the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul on which the Pope would celebrate a Mass in each basilica.3 The modern missal retains a relic of the "other" Mass celebrated on Palm Sunday in the blessing of the palms, with the traditional rite containing almost all of the elements of a separate Mass (introit, collect, epistle, Gospel, preface, etc).
The eighteenth century Pope Benedict XIV permitted the priests of Spain and Portugal and their territories to offer three Masses on All Souls Day, a privilege extended to the entire Western Church by Pope Benedict XV in the twentieth century.4
Shouldn't we all take advantage of the opportunity to attend Mass as often as possible?
1. Adrian Fortescue, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (Preserving Christian Publications 1997 reprint of the 1912 Longmans Green edition), pages 187-188.
2. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907) s.v. "Bination."
4. Ibid; Benedict XV, Incruentum altaris sacrificium, 1915.