The cycle of the church year (called the liturgical cycle) is one of the ways our Church educates us. We are meant to follow the feasts and even the moods of the seasons of the year as a way of becoming closer to Christ. The season of Advent, which began last week, is a time of anticipation – looking forward to the Incarnation of the Savior at that we celebrate at Christmas.
The season of Advent always has four Sundays. But the length of the season can vary from year to year because Christmas is always celebrated on a fixed date, December 25, which always falls within the week after that fourth Sunday. So the weekdays after the Fourth Sunday of Advent can range from five days (if Christmas follows on a Saturday), to zero days (if, as this year, Christmas is on Monday). Celebrating properly is important – not just for fussy legal reasons but because it’s part of our education in faith. So here’s what happens this year with the liturgical feasts.
The first three weeks of Advent proceed as usual. Sunday December 24 (with its Vigil on Saturday 12/23) is the Fourth Sunday of Advent. As with any Sunday, assisting at Mass is required and receiving the Holy Communion is encouraged. But the Fourth Sunday of Advent (and with it, the season of Advent) ends Sunday afternoon, when the new liturgical season – the Christmas season – begins with the Mass of the Vigil of Christmas. Even though it’s the same calendar day – December 24 – it’s a new liturgical day. The church is decorated differently, the color of the priests’ vestments changes from Advent violet to Christmas white, the Glory to God is again sung at Mass (as it hasn’t been during Advent).
In practical terms this means a few things. First, over the December 23-25 long weekend (plus Monday) Catholics should plan to attend Mass twice – once for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning), and once for Christmas (Sunday afternoon or night, or Monday). Catholics may also receive Holy Communion at each of the two Masses they attend – even if that means receiving twice on the same calendar day. (That is, if you attend for the Fourth Sunday of Advent on Sunday morning and again for the Christmas Vigil or Mass at Night later on Sunday, you may – and should – receive Holy Communion at both. They are different liturgical days, so you are receiving only once per “day.”)
For the parish, the nearly-impossible quick turnaround of the seasons (Advent ending around 1pm Sunday as the Noon Mass ends, and Christmas beginning as people start arriving for a Christmas Vigil Mass) means that Christmas decorations will be in-place (but not lighted) at the Advent Mass. It also means that we have to adjust our schedule of Masses for the Vigil of Christmas (since priests and other ministers have already celebrated three Masses that morning). The Liturgy Coordinating Team and I looked at the numbers of people who come to Mass at the different times on Christmas Eve, and decided that we would not have two of the customary Masses this December 24th – the 6pm and the 7:30pm. (The earlier Masses and the Mass at Night at 10pm will be celebrated as usual.)
I know that the customary 7:30pm “quiet” Mass was valuable to the people who came, and I regret that we just can’t manage it this year. I hope the changes will inconvenience as few people as possible. We’ll re-evaluate the schedule for Christmas of 2018 (when Christmas is on a Tuesday, making for a four-day series of celebrations of Mass).
The full schedule of Christmas Masses and of Confessions before Christmas is elsewhere in the Bulletin, and on the parish website. Until next week, peace.