Here’s where we went for Christmas Eve Mass: Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Boulder, Colorado.
To be honest, I was not keen on the idea of attending the 4 PM children’s service. I’ve been to enough Christmas Eve Masses over the years to know that they are usually more packed than a Best Buy store on Black Friday. But Scott really wanted to try, so we left for church at 3:30. Even with the early start, we ended up getting what appeared to be the last three seats in the entire church, part of a row of folding chairs set up behind the back pew. (There are four of us Moyers, but both boys were able to fit, more or less harmoniously, on one seat.)
And we were lucky to get these seats, because by the time Mass started, there was not even standing room left. People were lining the aisles around the entire perimeter of the church, and the vestibule was packed with people who were literally shoulder to shoulder. It was the kind of situation that would give a fire marshall a coronary. And I must admit that the sense of being squashed made me feel ever so slightly resentful towards my fellow man, which is what often happens with me in a crowd. I am someone who likes her space, so Christian charity is not uppermost in my mind when I am hemmed in by other people.
But as the Mass went on, Christmas worked its magic, and I felt my exasperation turning into a kind of warm bonding. There was an adorable dimpled baby in the pew in front of me, who smiled at everyone around her. There was a friendly family to my left, whose little girl kept looking longingly at Luke’s picture book. I lent it to her midway through the Mass, and her face lit up. And as Matthew read Hop on Pop to himself in a low voice, the woman standing behind him leaned forward and asked, in a warmly conversational tone, “How did you learn to read so good?”
“I practiced,” he said, smiling shyly.
The priest’s homily was funny and insightful, perfectly calibrated for a Mass full of kids and probably more than a few inactive Catholics. And for some reason, the boys were extraordinarily well-behaved, with hardly a whine or tussle. Clearly, the spirit of Christmas was making them content to sit serenely still. Then again, it could have been the raisins.
Communion took forever, as one would expect with such a crowd, but by that time, my earlier tension had mellowed into a lovely peace. And when it was finally our turn, I found myself getting my first good look at the altar as we filed slowly down the aisle. There were fir trees of varying sizes, lit with white lights, and they gradually came into view as I moved along, and it was so arresting and beautiful. It was as though I were edging closer to mystery and splendor – a very appropriate feeling when one is going up to receive Communion.
Back in my pew, I reflected on how this ritual, this Eucharist, was feeding not just me, but everyone else in that packed church. Whatever our differences may be, we were all letting Christ melt onto our tongue and dissolve into us. He took on human flesh two thousand years ago, born to a young woman in a stable, and that flesh was entering into ours as we filed back to our seats. We were united in a mysterious shared experience.
And then I thought about my friend Mary, and remembered her funeral Mass the week before. As the priest invited us up to Communion, he had said, “Remember that when you hold the risen Lord in your hands, you hold the One who now holds Mary.” The memory of those words was so comforting and beautiful there on that packed church on that snowy Christmas Eve, when the pain of losing her is still so new.
Connection upon connection, meaning upon meaning: that is what the Eucharist is to me. I don’t think I will ever come to the end of its mystery … and that, more than anything else, is my proof that it is real.
After everyone had been fed, the lights in the church went off, and the white lights on the trees glowed in the darkness. And we all sang “Silent Night,” and it was perfect. I hugged my little boys and felt a connection to everyone else in that church, to all those who have gone before us, and everything felt beautifully right.
There is suffering in this life, and there is death. But there is also a God who was born as one of us and who just keeps bringing us together, week after week, if we let him.