Many of the faces were familiar and, slowed by age and speckled with grey, they reminded me of the past. As I sat through Mass, I had great memories of Christmas celebrations in that church, my home parish. I recalled the various priests that had served there and the rich music that had once filled the standing-room only building. I was an altar server for almost ten years as a kid and it’s where I first discovered God. That hangar-like building with its wood-paneled sanctuary and questionable orange carpet was where I realized that the gospels were more than just words on a page, where I realized that they were both a call and challenge. Even if the building itself wasn’t beautiful, I could always count on the beauty of those celebrations, seen in the common prayerful experiences of the people gathered together.
But the experience this year was not so memorable; it was hardly even prayerful. It seemed like everyone ‘up there’–the priests, the musicians, the other ministers–wanted to be somewhere else. There was no word of welcome to those who may have ventured back into the building after some time away, no invitation to consider God coming into the world at present, no sense that this gathering was something different from any ordinary Sunday. After Mass on Christmas Eve this year I wasn’t totally sure Jesus had been born.
On that cold night, my parents and I drove to our parish to attend the Midnight Mass–scheduled for 10:30pm–and took our familiar seats in the easternmost section of pews, near the simple statue of St. Joseph. We knelt and prayed, then sat and read the week’s parish bulletin and waited, a common ritual in our lives as Catholics. As we waited, we listened to the earnest choir squeak out Silent Night and then Mass began.
From the outset, things went awry. The choir and the clergy may have been earnest but they seemed unprepared. I watched the young, newly-ordained priest wave his arms frantically as he tried to interrupt the warbling choir so he could lay the Jesus figurine in the manger in front of the altar and offer a prayer. With the porcelain baby safe in his faux straw-filled hovel, the music squirmed back to life as the choir wheezed out a verse of O Come All Ye Faithful, beckoning us to join them. I looked around and noticed that few did.
As the liturgy came to a close, after some pro-forma thanks to the choir and to the young priest for a “wonderful homily” (in which he had simply read to us a passage from a letter from some Pope long-dead) the pastor wished us a Merry Christmas on behalf of the whole parish staff, reciting their names as if calling out Bingo numbers. And so, a mere forty-five minutes after we sat down in our pew, we were back in our car. Where was the joy?, I wondered. “Why do you go back there?”, I asked my parents. They shrugged and laughed nervously, as if my question confused them.
It’s hard to come home. I miss seeing the church full and singing loudly with others. I miss the beauty of the celebrations of my childhood parish, the gatherings that revealed to me who God was and how God was active. Mostly I miss the joy that was evident on the faces of those ‘up there’–priests, musicians, ministers–that was contagious for those of us ‘down here’ in the pews. I know it’s not nostalgia for old times gone past. In fact, I don’t think the good old days were all that good. It’s just that I desire more for my home parish than what I encountered there on Christmas Eve, more for the priests, musicians, my parents and their fellow parishioners, both old and new. I want more for them because I found more there myself at one time: call, challenge, beauty, joy. I’m sure of it.
I’m also pretty sure I’m not alone in longing. I think my parents (and people like them) keep going back to that church because they want more of what they already have: faith in the God who has faith in them, no matter the setting. Jesus was born. And in a pretty bleak place at that. In our longing for more we bring about the birth as we make a space for it to happen. In a dusty old manger or a dreary experience at church, God is born again in our time and in our place. That’s worth remembering.
The cover image, from Flickr user Carol Von Canon, can be found here.