Our friends the Dormitionists, that most retiring of religious Orders, whose charism is to live here and now eternal rest in Christ, awake somewhat rested from the Great Slumber they undertake, from Our Lord's Annunciation until the very Eve of His Nativity, imitating therein the pattern of the Divine Master; and thereupon celebrate the three Masses of Christmas as one. This, of course, images forth the Trinity, our God Who Is, both Three and One; and also that Christ is born in threefold wise: according to His Godhead, of His Father before all ages; according to His Manhood, of His Mother in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the King; and according to His grace, every day and moment in hearts devoted to Him. The Order of the Dormition, in other words, alone of all hidden corners of the Church conserves the ancient practice of the Missa trifaciata – understandably condemned as an abuse when undertaken for pecunary gain, for such is wicked simony; but, as with other their liturgical peculiarities, entirely licit and praiseworthy when permitted by Papal indult, omitting any reception of stipends under false pretences. (After all, recent history both sacred and profane demonstrates how almost anything can be forbidden one minute and obligatory the next.)
Gavantus, in any case, relates that Maurice, Archbishop of Paris, and Rotrodus, Archbishop of Rouen, gave their seal of approval to the concession by the Abbot of license to use a Missa bifaciata composed by the Prior of the main monastery, and his friend the priest of SS Gervase and Protase, at Gisors, in the year 1181 (licentiam celebrandi duas Missas sub uno Canone concessit); and, by Divine command, a holy hermit of the diocese of Beauvais celebrated a Missa quadrifaciata in 1191. Here we see the hierarchical and the charismatic aspects in fundamental agreement: moreover, if a four- or two-faced liturgy be acceptable to the Church and to God, respectively, certainly the mean between the two must be pleasing to both, surely? Later Synods modified this early approbation, it is true, but the Dormitionists, ever arch-conservatives or at least archly conservative, maintained this usage for the night of Christmas – since otherwise, by their Rule only celebrating Mass in the evening, they would be deprived of the merit of the Dawn and Day Masses thereof.
But what a Missa trifaciata? To use the somewhat barbarous Latin expression of an enemy thereof, one Peter Cantor, it is a three-faced Mass: the priest going to the altar, first celebrates Mass down to the Offertory; then begins forthwith a second Mass, again continuing down to the Offertory; and a third time does the same. O liturgical stutter, beloved of the mystic Catherine Pickstock! How we see thee thus instantiated! Only then, whenas out of humility he has hesistated thrice at the anteroom of the Mystic and Divine Liturgy, does he continue with the offertory prayers or Canon Minor, proceeding to read a Secret for each Mass formulary, and then one Preface, with the holy Canon of the Mass and all else until, having received the Sacrament, he reads three Communions, then three Postcommunions, and so ends in the usual manner. So say the words of Durandus (not exactly a friend to this devotion): Quidam incipiunt Missam de die, celebrantes illam suo ordine, usque ad offerendam postea incipiunt aliam Missam, et eam cantant usque ad eumdem locum: et idem faciunt plures, si volunt:... et exinde procedentes, dicunt tot secretas quot Missas incœperunt, semel tantum canonem dicentes, et consecrantes, et in fine tot orationes dicunt, quot officia Missæ incœperunt.
By so doing, the Dormitionist celebrating the Mass of Christmas for the assembled Canons spares them the tiresome weariness of three back-to-back Masses, with all the fuss of conserved ablutions kept back to consume after the last and whatnot. First, having mixed the chalice and said the usual apologia as prescribed in the form of Mass proper to the Order, he begins Dominus dixit, the first Introit; and continues with that Mass down to the words of its Offertory, Lætentur cæli. Immediately, however, he then takes up the second Introit, Lux fulgebit, and proceeds to read the second Mass down to the end of its Offertory, Deus firmavit; and yet a third time (mystically figuring forth the Trinity) begins again with the Day Mass's Introit Puer natus est, continuing with its prayers and readings until he has finished its Offertory, Viderunt omnes. Only then does the sacrificant proceed to the Sacrifice, the hierophant to the Sacred Oblation.
As the ancients aver, God loves an odd number; and the Church never permitted an even number of orations at Mass, unless joined under one conclusion; for this reason, the commemoration of St Anastasia usually made at the second Mass is omitted, for else there would be an intolerable and unbearable four Secrets and four Postcommunions, a monstrosity indeed that the Canons of Our Lady's Dormition utterly despise and reject. Similarly, while in mediæval days generally many Sequences were found in the Masses of Christmas, the Dormitionists do not admit their use to their Use, just as the Carthusians entirely spurn them. For this reason, while the Dormitionists otherwise so closely resemble certain Dominicans in their forms and customs, their Missal contains no Lætabundus. However, just as in the Dominican and other Missals there are Lessons appointed for use at the three Christmas Masses, so in the Dormitionist do three pericopes from Isaias feature (a curiosity revived in the lectionary of the Novus Ordo).
All this does of course still entail three Kyries, three Glorias, and three Creeds; but then sometimes, as a wise commentator said, "Too much liturgy is barely enough".
The three Lessons, Epistles and Gospels, to the total of nine, of course signify the nine choirs of Angels who sang at Christ's Birth in the flesh.
A Happy Christmas to all readers!
Do at least imitate the Dormitionists and their holy charism by enjoying an afternoon slumber or stupor once the wassailing and feasting of Christmas dinner has filled you brim-full of good cheer and soporific meats and drinks...