Christmas vigil readings

In Paul Turner's Blog by Paul Turner

Q: I looked at your posting on this question ( ) but am still confused. The Lectionary doesn’t say that the Vigil readings “may” be used, but that they are used on the evening of the 24th.It then adds that those readings (“the texts that follow”) may be used on Christmas Day – and that on Christmas Day one may also choose among the 3 sets of readings. Thus, as I have read it, at the Vigil only the Vigil readings may be used but on Christmas Day (3 Masses) any of the 4 sets of readings may be used (vigil or 3 christmas day masses).That is also how I read the instructions in the Paulist Ordo). But if I understand you correctly, you are saying that one may use any of the 4 sets of readings at any of the 4 Masses (though you say “three” at the end of the post – which also confused me).That’s also what the Homiletic Directory #110 seems to be hinting at. So… are Vigil readings fixed or does the same option that applies to the 3 Masses on Christmas Day also extend to the Vigil? Thanks!


A: It is confusing. Basically, I think that your conclusion is correct: The vigil readings are to be used at a vigil Mass, but any set may be used at the other Masses.

At least in the United States. But anywhere one needs a proper interpretation of which Mass is truly a vigil.
First, some history. In the preconciliar missal, the vigil Mass was simply the morning liturgy of December 24. The gospel was Matthew 1:18-21, the angel’s annunciation to Joseph.

Christmas had three Masses, the first of which, in the night, usually began at midnight. The gospel was the birth of Jesus according to Luke’s famous account, 2:1-14.

In 1965 when Study Group XI presented its first draft for the revised lectionary, it treated matters the same way. The daily Mass for December 24 used the gospel of Matthew 1:18-24, though the members of the group wrote that it “could be considered as an evening Mass of the vigil.” The Christmas readings remained the same.

The final draft of the lectionary was only for Sundays and feasts, but it included a vigil Mass of Christmas, distinct from the three Christmas Masses. That implies that it was no longer a mere daily Mass. But the vigil’s gospel was only the genealogy (Matt 1:1-16), suggesting that it is not yet Christmas. The same draft describes an “evening Mass of the vigil” [my underline] with a series of Old Testament readings and psalms that could be used either before the Christmas Mass in the night, or as part of an extended vespers. Then it gives the readings for the three Christmas Masses.

The first edition of the lectionary put all four Masses under the heading “Christmas,” thus raising the status of the Vigil as a true Christmas Mass. The verses for the gospel at the vigil Mass changed to Matthew 1:1-25 or 18-25, which include the birth of Jesus, and these longer and shorter options still appear in the second edition of the lectionary. 

The first rubric in Latin is the same as the one in the second edition. It states that the readings for the vigil “are used.” Similarly, the second rubric, which permits choosing from the three sets of readings at any Mass on Christmas day, has not changed. But its location has. In the first edition, the rubric appeared after the Mass in the night, and before the other two. In the English translation of the first edition, the rubric moved before the Mass in the night, where it would be more useful. In the US English translation of the second edition, the rubric moved once more ahead of the readings for the vigil—where it has never appeared in Latin.

Consequently, in the United States, the rubric appears to apply to all four sets of readings, permitting any to be used on Christmas Day, but the vigil readings are the only option for the vigil Mass. The editors probably did this in the US to ensure that you could use the readings for the Mass in the night at any vigil Mass.

The missal is another matter. Its prayers for the vigil Mass presume that it isn’t Christmas yet.

Consequently, wearing my pastor’s hat, I generally advise against using the missal’s vigil Mass for any Christmas Eve Mass that the faithful are considering their Christmas Day Mass. For them, no matter what time Mass begins on the afternoon or evening of December 24, I use the missal texts for the Mass in the night. 

I let the readings follow suit. I do not consider it obligatory to read the readings of the vigil Mass on December 24 to a congregation not coming back for any Mass on December 25. They are, in effect, celebrating the Mass in the night, not the vigil Mass, even though it may begin before night falls.