Children’s Christmas Eve Mass
Fr. Peter Daly
November 21, 2008
Fr. Peter Daly explains some of the problems in planning the Children’s Christmas mass.
Every Christmas, like many parishes, we have a dilemma on Christmas Eve. What should we do with the gospel reading?
The problem is that the Vigil Mass of Christmas Eve is always our children’s mass. It is the most crowded liturgy of the year. We pack the kids and parents in around 6 PM. They want to “get mass out of the way” early on Christmas Eve so they can rush home to their presents. The next day they go off to grandma’s. Christmas morning we have empty seats all over the place.
But the readings the lectionary prescribes for the vigil mass are not right for a church full of fidgety children.
The lectionary says we should read the Christmas story from the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. Most people only vaguely know that version. It is the one with the long genealogy of Jesus. It’s goes on and on with passages like, “Shealtiel became the father of Zerubbabel and Zerubbabel the father of Abiub and the Abiub, the father of Eliakim, etc. etc.”
It goes on like that for 42 generations. Even the adults start falling asleep. People who have never read the Bible start scratching their heads. “Hey,” they think, “we came here for the Christmas story.”
The kids don’t want to hear a list of genealogies. They just want to see the baby Jesus put into the manger and sing Silent Night.
The lectionary editors were not pastors. To a scripture scholar there are some valuable theological and historical insights in that gospel passage from Matthew. You just have to dig a bit into the history of Israel.
But nobody wants to listen to a long list of unpronounceable names on Christmas Eve, especially if you are six years old and have visions of Barbie dancing in your head.
Christmas children’s mass is borderline chaos. The church is full of squirmy children. Many of them only go to church once a year. Their parents who aren’t too familiar with mass either.
The lectionary says we can skip the genealogy of Matthew’s gospel and go to the last seven verses of that chapter which talk about the birth. But from a preacher’s standpoint they are equally problematic for a children’s mass.
After the genealogy, Matthew notes that Joseph, “being a righteous man” contemplates divorcing Mary. Christmas mass with children does not seem the time to raise the specter of divorce.
Then, after Joseph rejects the idea of divorce, the Matthew’s gospel passage ends up with the observation that, “He had no relations with her until she bore a son.”
Even more problematic than divorce is trying to explain to a church full of pre-schoolers what “had no relations with her” means.
So, what do we do? We do like most parishes. We punt.
We substitute the readings from Midnight Mass, the gospel of Luke. Much better.
You know that gospel by heart. It’s the story that we all acted out in our children’s Christmas plays from time immemorial.
In Luke’s version Mary wraps Jesus in swaddling clothes and lays Him in a manger. Luke is the guy who has shepherds keeping night watch over their flocks and angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest.”
Now that’s Christmas!
For many people Christmas is about tradition and expectation. People come for whatever reason. Perhaps out of a sense of duty or a sense of nostalgia.
For us preachers, carpe diem, seize the day. We need to keep their attention.
The history of Israel can wait for another opportunity. If you have a church full of squirmy children and impatient parents, let Luke tell the story.