Because of the wackiness that is this year’s liturgical calendar many Catholics in North America are scratching their hands, trying to figure out exactly how many times they need to be at church this upcoming Christmas Weekend.
Or, rather, trying to determine exactly how to get out of it.
Unfortunately, for the latter group, the answer isn’t very encouraging: basically, twice.
You have to be at church twice. And, in some cases, it might even be twice on the same day.
Because the dates for Advent are set by the dates for Easter, and since our dating of Easter is fixed to the cycle of the moon, Advent is suddenly, and shocking, coming to a rather abrupt end. This year, oddly enough, the 4th and final Sunday of Advent falls on Christmas Eve, December 24.
Because it is a Sunday, Catholics are obliged to be at Mass for that Sunday. In our parish, that means we can attend the Vigil Mass on the Saturday evening before, or one of the ordinary Sunday morning masses on the actual day.
But, because the next day, Monday, is Christmas it is also a Holy Day of Obligation. The unusual thing, however, is that many Catholics fulfill their Christmas obligation by attending a Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve, Sunday, Dec. 24 this year.
Now before you breathe a sigh of relief at successfully killing two birds with one stone know this: just because Christmas Eve is on a Sunday doesn’t mean you can only attend Mass once.
Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.
Since the Christmas Eve Mass is a Vigil Mass it’s technically celebrating Monday’s Holy Day, Christmas, not the 4th Mass of Advent, the Sunday Mass.
In other words, you can’t go to Mass on just Christmas Eve and fulfill all of your requirements—you’d be skipping Sunday, or skipping Christmas. You can’t do both.
Instead, for Catholics in North America (I haven’t done research elsewhere), you have to go to Mass twice on Christmas Weekend.
In some cases, that might mean Sunday morning and again on Sunday night. Or, Saturday night and Monday morning. Or, Sunday morning and again on Monday morning. It might require a bit of work to figure out exactly when which Mass is offered in your parish, but it should be made pretty clear at any rate.
Catholics need to fulfill both their Sunday obligation and their obligation to celebrate Christmas’ Mass, too.
But, technicalities aside, it’s worth remembering and reflecting on the idea of our Sunday obligation in the first place.
Why do I have to be at church? And what does it matter anyway?
A close friend of mine, wiser than myself, once put it this way. If a doctor tells you what kind of medicine you need to take to get better from a particular illness you’re going to oblige. The doctor knows best, and he’s telling you how to heal. We don’t often question doctors, especially when we see evidence of the medicine making us better.
The Church, he said, is doing exactly the same sort of thing.
The Church, Pope Francis has often said, is a field hospital.
It’s true that we’re all “ill” and the Church knows best what kind of medicine we need. The medicine of the Mass, to put it one way. And if we truly believe that the Church does know best how to help us to heal and grow then we should follow her instructions—and take the medicine on offer.
Our Sunday obligation, and our obligation to be present on certain days like Christmas, isn’t intended by the Church to be a sort of divine punishment (although it may feel that way, depending on your parish) it’s meant to be medicine. That we Catholics in the very least hear from the Gospel and celebrate the incredible gift of the Mass a few days a year, like at Christmas and Easter.
Because after all, God is our designer, our Creator, and if we truly believe that then we also should believe that he knows best how we operate. And if God asks us to set aside certain days to celebrate in a certain way this should bring us exuberant joy knowing that we’re running according to our instructions—that we’re operating as our Creator intended.
Rather than an onerous obligation, having to attend Mass twice over the Christmas Weekend, count it a blessing, a profound joy, that God has invited us to cleave so closely to himself, to celebrate and commemorate something so intimate as him coming down in human flesh and bones, and dying to offer us eternity. Fix our hearts not on the difficulty of dragging ourselves to Mass more than once in a couple of days stretch, but the blessing it is to receive the Eucharist, to take our good medicine, and to have hope and heal.
And, sure, if your family is anything like mine it won’t be easy to make it to Mass twice but let’s all agree to reframe our view of things just a little bit to recognize that the God of the whole universe knows what’s best for his creation, and this is it. And to celebrate with eyes and hearts wide open, the incredible coming of our Lord in something so lowly as a helpless baby. I mean, how profound a love is that?