Reflecting on Christmas Eve
Perhaps one of the earliest seeds for my journey into the fullness of the Catholic Church started on a Christmas Eve when I was a high school senior. Until then my experience of “church” had mostly been a little country congregation where the word “liturgy” had never been used and the highest celebration of Christmas was maybe a cantata in which there were two parts, melody and country alto/tenor.
I was a conspicuous Christian in high school among the few other students who knew me (I was a shy, introverted loner). One friend was intrigued with my straight-laced fervor and was amazed that I knew nothing of the kind of Christianity his family practiced. He invited me to join him at a Christmas Eve service (my little church knew nothing of Advent, and “Christmas” was always the Sunday before December 25 –– unless Christmas was actually on Sunday, and then we’d do an abbreviated schedule because “people want to be with their families”).
So Christmas Eve 1968 found me at the Church of the Advent, the Episcopal parish in my hometown. The service started with a pipe organ, majestic hymnody and a processional. It was indeed “glory to God,” and it felt as if I’d been caught up into the worship of heaven described by St John in his Revelation.
Looking back now I know that the Episcopal (or Anglican) liturgy is essentially a Catholic placebo, but I knew nothing then. It would be almost another forty years before I would attend a Catholic Mass. All I knew that night is that my heart, which was so committed to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, was touched by something that went beyond anything I’d ever experienced. After that night I would slip into an Episcopal service whenever I could, and especially on Christmas Eve.
Until that initial night I had never been in a church that used the historical forms of confession of sin and the Creed. I had never held a “prayer book” (what, in the Catholic Church, is a missalette). I had never prayed formal, written prayers. I had never seen such a prominence given to Communion.
I was overwhelmed. I prayed those prayers from a mind that was engaged and a heart that was saying yes. I was aware that I was celebrating, on the very night of Christmas, the entrance of my Savior into this world. I was aware –– intuitively, because the concept of Tradition and the continuity of Faith had never been explicit in my own setting –– that I was tasting something that was rooted in what it meant to be part of the visible Church on earth, and yet transcending time and space. I could not have expressed it this way back then, but I was worshipping with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven....
You should recognize that –– it’s from the Preface, the Mass prayer just before we add our voices saying Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.... It’s like we are joining with the angels that sang to the shepherds on that Holy Night. It’s why we are here tonight.... only we are not restricted to Christmas; we get to join that heavenly chorus every time we gather for the Mass.
I had no idea when I seventeen years old that Jesus had me on a journey that would lead to the fullness of his Church, but I did believe that the birth of Jesus Christ changed our world.
I still believe that today, and so much more. I base my life on each line of the Creed we say week after week, and I am in the Church now with a role of encouraging you to do the same. No matter how old it is –– no matter how many times we say it –– there is one Truth worth trusting.... one Truth worth giving your life:
one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God....
For us men and our salvation he came down from heaven,
by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man....
And he did that to die for us –– to take upon himself all the pain and death of this broken world. As we celebrate his First Coming, we rejoice in hope of his Second Coming.
It’s all here as we gather on this Silent Night, Holy Night. Let our Lord make himself new to you again. I got a small taste on a Christmas Eve long ago, and I still hunger for more. On this Christmas Night, Taste and see that the Lord is good....