We went to Midnight Mass on Monday night, the first time I’d ever gone to church for Christmas. We walked into our beautiful church around 11:30pm and took a seat up front just in time for the caroling to start. I was fascinated as I looked around the building, to see so many people (probably about 500 in all) in their nice suits and dresses, out so late on this cold night to pay their respects to God.
As the choir began a beautiful rendition of O Come All Ye Faithful, I sank bank into the pew and only barely sang along. I had waited so long for this great event, my first Christmas celebration in a church, and yet, to be honest, I was in a bad mood. In all the chaos of planning Christmas while sleep deprived for three kids ages three and under at two different relative’s houses with some little family disagreements thrown into the mix, I was left feeling down and negative. I’d done a good job of trusting in God throughout Advent, but had succumbed to frustration and stress sometime during that afternoon. And my mood was only made worse by the fact that I had had such high expectations for this night, so I felt like I’d ruined this evening that was supposed to be so special.
As the last people poured into the building and the choir began the opening song for Mass, I heard some commotion in a nearby pew. A lady had squeezed into the row behind us and was greeting what seemed to be her husband and her sister, hugging them and telling them merry Christmas. At various lulls in the Mass she would occasionally turn to them and quietly exclaim something like, “Isn’t this wonderful?” or “This is so exciting!” At one point I looked to see if she had young children with her, wondering why she was making those comments since surely she’d done this many times before.
Meanwhile, when we kneeled for the consecration I leaned heavily on the pew in front of me, hanging my head low. My mind drifted away from the Mass as I thought about how tired I was, and how few opportunities I was going to have to catch up on sleep any time soon. I thought of how disappointing it was that my husband had to go back to working 12 hour days the day after Christmas, how there were so many decision yet to be made about the logistics of the next day, and how difficult it was going to be that that we had to pack everyone up and go out of town this coming weekend. Eventually I forgot all about what was going on at the front of the church as my mental whining took over all my thoughts. And I heard that lady’s voice from behind me say breathlessly:
“There he is.”
I was so consumed by my selfish thoughts that my first reaction was to think, “Who?” I lifted my head to look around, and my eyes rested on the consecrated Host that the priest held above the altar. “Of course, ” I thought. “There He is.” I had been in the presence of a miracle, and all I could do was think about how much stuff I had to pack to go out of town.
At the end of the Mass, as the choir started again and we all got to our feet to fill the sanctuary with Joy to the World!, the lady behind me was giddy as she exclaimed, “Merry Christmas! I’m so excited, it’s CHRISTMAS!” And then I saw her introduce herself to the people I thought had been her husband and sister. As it turns out, she didn’t know them at all. She just hugged them and talked to them because…simply because she wanted to share her joy.
I turned around to smile at her and she mouthed, “It’s Christmas!” I had been analyzing my bad mood all night long, trying to remember all St. Francis de Sales’ advice about trusting God, trying to find the right prayers to say, trying to figure out what God’s will was for all the different situations that were stressing me out. I’d prayed for God’s help, but it seemed impossible that anything could pull me out of this funk.
But those two words, the joyful exclamation that “It’s Christmas!” were really all I needed to hear. Though my mood didn’t improve instantly, it snapped me out of my negative downward spiral to be reminded of just what a special day this is. My whole life those words kindled in me feelings of childlike wonder at this mysterious holiday that has the power to inspire people from all walks of life to be more loving, more giving, more kind; the holiday that still sends a shockwave of Christian hope and joy throughout the world, even in our increasingly secular culture. This was the holiday that gave me a taste of the peace of Christianity, even before I believed. It was Christmas!
Despite the fact that we didn’t get home until 1:45 and then I was up multiple times with the baby and our plans went way off track for the meal and gift opening the next day, my mood steadily improved, and I was able to set aside my cares and just enjoy the beauty of Christmas.
So thank you to the anonymous woman in the pew behind me that night. Thank you for reminding me of the wonder of Christmas, and the miracle of being able to celebrate Christ’s birth by receiving his actual presence in the Eucharist. Thank you for your humility, for not being afraid to look foolish by sharing such unrestrained joy with strangers. Thank you for acting as a little angel to remind those of us who had lost sight of the simple fact that “It’s Christmas!”