Question: Why are there three Masses on Christmas?
Apart from serious necessity, a priest is allowed to celebrate Mass only once each day -- for a second or third, there must be a number of people who will be unable to attend Mass on an important feast day, or perhaps someone in danger of death without receiving Holy Communion. Only twice a year does the Church relax this rule: On All Souls Day, the 2nd of November, when we offer three Masses out of concern for the suffering of the souls in Purgatory; and on Christmas day, when we are privileged to offer three Masses as the Church's Christmas present to Her faithful people. We are, by the way, encouraged to attend all three of the Masses if that is possible, both so that we may gain all of the graces of the Christmas celebration, and so that we may learn from the prayers and readings of the three entirely different Mass texts.
Everyone should understand that the Church varies the texts of Her Masses in such a way as (so to speak) to "dramatize" the events of our Lord's and Lady's lives over the course of the year. We say that there are two "cycles" in the liturgical year: the Easter cycle is devoted primarily to the events surrounding our Lord's passion, death, and resurrection; and depends on the date of the Paschal full moon after the spring equinox. The Christmas cycle fits into the calendar days of the year, and spreads out a bit more widely, over more than a year: from the Espousal of Mary and Joseph (Jan 23), the Annunciation of Jesus' Incarnation (March 25), the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth pregnant with St. John the Baptist (July 2), our Lord's Birth (Dec 25), His Circumcision on the 8th Day (Jan 1), on to His Presentation in the Temple on the 40th Day - Candlemas (Feb 2). I am sure I have left out few of these days.
Close up around the feast of Christmas, the detail gets greater: The four weeks of Advent represented the four centuries of anticipation between the fall of Adam and the birth of our Redeemer. During the Ember days just past, we heard the prophecy of Isaias the Prophet, that "a virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel...." We heard, likewise, that He would be of the house of King David, "a rod out of the root of Jesse...."
We heard again about the Annunciation, of the Angel Gabriel's appearance to Mary, and of Mary's consent to become the Virgin Mother of God: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee, and the Holy to be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." And we heard that "Elizabeth conceived a son, even in her old age ... for nothing is impossible with God." On Friday we heard that Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, and "Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost ... and the babe in her womb [John the Baptist] leapt for joy." On Saturday, St. Luke put things in historical context, naming Tiberias Caesar and Pontius Pilate as the Roman officials, and Herod and Philip and Lysanias as the Jewish tetrarchs, and Annas and Caiphas as the High Priests at the time of our Lord's birth. Yesterday, on the Vigil, we heard from St. Matthew as to how St. Joseph came to understand the virginal conception of Jesus and his own call to be Jesus' foster father.
Now, we arrive at Christmas with its three Masses, and we get even greater detail. "In the town of David, which is called Bethlehem ... [Mary] brought forth her firstborn Son and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger because there was no room in the inn." Jesus is brought forth privately in the middle of the night, known only to a few in the stable and to the angels. In the Mass at dawn, we hear that the shepherds "went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in the manger." After four thousand years, the promised Savior has appeared to the descendents of Abraham, His chosen people.
The Gospel of the third Mass is the one we usually read at the end of Mass -- very important, for in it Saint John reminds us that the newborn Jesus has existed as the Son of God from all eternity: "He was in the beginning with God, and all things were made through Him." The "Word" that took human nature with the Annunciation, and was born to the world on Christmas Day, existed before time itself. He was, as we say in the Creed, "born of the Father before all ages, God of God, Light of Light.... of one being with the Father ... Who was made flesh by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made Man." Today on Christmas, as well as on the Annunciation, we go down on both knees when we read those words in the Creed, to recognize their direct connection to the mystery of the Incarnation.
In the traditional Missal, the third Mass has its own proper last Gospel, in which Saint Matthew describes the arrival of the three Kings who came from the East to worship the newborn King. And this aspect of Christmas is particularly important to us -- to non-Jews who have been redeemed by the Savior promised Adam and to Abraham. Fortunate, indeed, we are that "many will come from the east and the west, to feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven" -- even those of us not originally among the chosen people.
"A Child is born to us, and a Son is given to us." Today we are privileged to celebrate three Masses, and during the coming few weeks we will learn even more about these events in the Masses of the Christmas season. May God bless all of us, and confirm in us His love -- the love so great that He sent His only begotten Son into the world -- and may that love spill over into all of our lives in this season of our Lord's birth -- and may that love spread to people, and families, and nations.