It was Christmas Eve or early Christmas Day, since it was closer to 2:30 a.m. just about three or four years ago. It was snowing, my breath frosting from the air. I’d stepped outside to have a cigarette. All was quiet, all was still. I had been invited to join a friend and her family for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We had attended Midnight Mass and we were now home, the kids in bed, while we scrambled to get last minute stockings stuffed, presents tucked under the tree. It was so quiet.
I thought back on that just experienced Mass. I hadn’t attended Midnight Mass in years, and church hardly at all – for funerals, yes, but simply to gather with fellow believers in joyous song and thankful celebration? No. It was like returning to something known, but now foreign. When to stand, when to kneel, taking my cue from my friend present at my elbow and her girls on my other side… Her husband waiting in the wings for his trumpet solo. Their church was set up like a theater in the round with parishioners gliding in with graceful pageantry, reading from scripture and the priest leading all of us in welcoming the Christ child and the music – that glorious throat swelling music!
In the cold stomping, snow falling, quiet night, I saw that congregation in my mind and a voice asked, “This is your line in the sand. Will you defend their right to practice their religion?”
Christmas morning, I told my friend and she asked, as was her wont, straight and to the heart: “Does that mean you are going to become a minister?” Nope.
These are fragile, perilous times and maybe it was always so. This past year, I’ve circled the local Catholic church, made it as far as the lobby and chickened out. Tried on Easter Eve and got an anxiety attack. Embarrassing, but true. I am not a joiner, but I want so badly to be with people who celebrate the existence of God. Who celebrate the Desiderata. Who hear that still small voice within and honor it. And, it is not like God is isn’t talking loud and clear. I am at the dentist being drilled and the music system plays one of my very favorites, “Ave Maria.” I’ve one of those minds that gets music worms, songs that repeat endlessly until you hear another more catchy tune. I came home and googled all the variations on Ave Maria and then listened. It finally occurs to me to wonder about the words. They are always in a foreign language, Latin, German, Italian. And, you know what? It is the Hail Mary prayer. Who knew?
A week ago, still feeling the longing to hook up with a community, I walked into the market and went to the card section. I fell into a conversation with a woman – and as women do, we exchanged intimate details that would curl men’s toes, on five minutes acquaintance. And, she mentions the struggles she has been having and how she has a longing to return to her childhood faith – same local church I’ve been circling. She says she has made it as far as going inside, lighting a candle and saying prayers. Hasn’t done mass yet. She gifts me an extra copy the assembly booklet provided by the local church, Mass of Renewal. Are you listening, self?
The following Saturday I attended the local Mormon Church’s annual Christmas Nativity and Concert weekend. It was quite simply, wonderful. It was both lovely and transformative. To see their church ablaze with lights and decorations That giant room filled with individual nativity scenes from all over the world and made from every kind of material from cloth to stone to an African nut and from miniature to Triptychs. It was glorious, peaceful, affirming of the season and of Christ Himself and family, traditions. The room with wall to wall Christmas trees lit up with lights. The concert that followed was lovely and joyful. The city of my birth reversed its 30 year tradition of displaying nativity scenes in the public square – wouldn’t want to offend someone’s sensitivities. I stood in the room filled with manger scenes reflecting the ethnicity of whichever country it was from and I thought, “How could anyone be offended by this?”
I called the local Catholic church and the woman who handles outreach and welcoming new and returning Catholics could not have been more perfect. Tomorrow, I am gearing up my loins and screwing my courage to the sticking point. She will meet me by the church bell and walk by my side into the church. In between masses, there is a lecture series on the bones beneath the skin of Catholicism, which suits me perfectly and, if I’m buoyed up on the wings of knowledge, I can attend the follow on mass or take to my heels. Wish me luck.
“Will you defend their right to practice their religion?” Yes. Yes, I will. Yes, I am. Right here, right now. And mine.