“No, you can’t eat that candy cane. Hop in the van. It’s time for Christmas!”
My wife and I load our three excited young children in the van and drive out for a brisk sparkle tour before Midnight Mass. It is 20 degrees below zero, a definite improvement from last year. We are excited that we should get 15 minutes of looking at lights before the rear windows ice up completely. However, the sparkle tour is disappointing. It seems that large sections of streets this year have zero lights for display. So we trundle off to Midnight Mass.
Of course, it’s 7:50 P.M., not midnight. Midnight Mass is a thing of the past. Our seven-year-old asks why Midnight Mass is not at midnight. “Because Jesus is born early this year, I guess” is all I can muster in reply.
The church is half-full (to be positive). Just fifteen years ago, it was necessary to arrive thirty minutes early in order to ensure a seat. My wife asks me why there are giant blue and yellow streamers in the sanctuary. “Maybe it’s for Ukrainian Christmas?” I offer.
Mass begins. The choir director invites us to join in “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” We live on the prairies. It is sung by a choir of six heavenly angels. These ladies are old – some very old. But they have their sway all worked out. They rock in unison as they sing. Active participation, indeed. “Don’t look,” I remind myself. Otherwise, I am sure to smirk, and that would be rude. You cannot control what you hear, but you can control what you see. Custody of the eyes is important for Catholics – especially in these desperate times of modern worship. But deep down, I am pleased. At least it is not “Mary Did You Know?” Not this year.
As the Mass continues, my wife and I quickly notice that our two-year-old daughter, usually quite sweet at Mass, is flying off the wall. It is my parents’ parish, and so perhaps she does not interiorly make the connection that this, too, is Mass. Or she joins in the playfulness of the mood. For his homily, the priest gets the children involved, asking them questions. “What do you do on your birthday? Do you get presents? Do you have friends come over?” In an instant, the homily becomes comedy hour. However, the cuteness soon wears off; the priest-children session becomes awkward in length. It is too much for my daughter, and so my wife makes the walk of shame (or glory, for the daughter) to the back of the church.
The children return to their pews. Father continues his Q&A with the entire congregation. We are asked for a show of hands for several intense questions. “Who here has ever driven to ________? Have you ever stepped on something in the middle of the night? Do you like light better than darkness? Who here thinks they will live longer than 120 years?” The profoundness is lost on me. I will not ever understand the point. Not if I live past 120 years.
Mercifully, the homily ends. My daughter returns with her mom. Two minutes later, I am forced to remove the same daughter. She never talks this much at Mass.
At the back of the church, I gently walk her around. There is another toddler present. He is knocking over ornaments on a tree while his mother tries to reason with him. From the once-choir loft, now for overflow seating (in the improbable event of a full church), I hear loud dance music blasting from someone’s phone.
The consecration begins. I note that the front half of the church kneels down. The back half sits. “Don’t judge,” I once again remind myself. “They could maybe all have knee problems. And that might not be gum they’re chewing. It could be necessary pain medication.”
Communion time. I mistakenly look up once. There strolls a fine young man sporting a smart-looking ballcap as he approaches our Lord. My eyes snap back down. “Stop looking, man!”
Before long, the strife…er, Mass is o’er. Well, almost. There is time for a couple more minutes of comedy from the priest. The night is young, after all. We will surely be back at the house before 9:30 P.M. The final hymn begins: a combination of “Joy to the World” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I am thankful that it is not “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” or worse, the ever offensive “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
I bring my family to the crèche scene. Baby Jesus lies in his manger. He looks perfect. He positively radiates with beauty and joy. His mother is gazing at Him with a loving affection never before seen on Earth. The chitchat from the church pews is blocked from my mind. Finally, I can open my eyes and soak in the hugeness of what is happening. “Kiss baby Jesus, please?” asks my daughter. My wife lifts the babe to her lips. She gives the sweetest kiss, one only a two-year-old girl can give. Jesus is placed next to His mother once more.
With one final genuflection, we file out of the church and into the frigid van. Our Dominican friars Christmas album turns on automatically. The tender words echo: “Christ was born to save. Christ was born to save.”
It is sobering to watch a parish fade into oblivion with nothing more than a whimper. To look on in silence while the entire night screams triumphantly: “It cannot be fixed! It is over!”
Perhaps it cannot be fixed. Not this. An inauspicious fifty years of toil has reaped somberness of spirit and waves of darkness. Yet the light will never be totally extinguished, for reasons that the darkness can never comprehend. The little girl who kisses Jesus so sweetly will bear this light forth. And the boys who love solemnities because they wear ties to Mass. Families, few and far between, will pass on the faith in the home, if it be lacking in the church. Traditions, and their “dead” language of praise, will survive the scourge. Reverence will be returned to the sacrifice of the Mass. Perhaps only in an extraordinary form, by a future generation.
This much is certain: Christ loves His Church, and all the dear children. He was born for these times. Christ was born to save.