We celebrated five Masses on Christmas Eve in my first year at Sacred Heart Church (Tri-Community) in Colorado Springs. I remember well that my heart carried much grief that first Christmas after leaving downtown Portland where I was part of a community that cared for people living on the streets and who suffer from mental illness and long-term addictions. I left behind something very familiar where I witnessed every day the miracles of hope being born in such poverty.
I welcomed parishioners and visitors into the simple stucco church of Sacred Heart that night. I extended my hand in welcome and I am sure people felt in my handshake the shivering grief of loss that night. The crowds at each Mass seemed overwhelming to me because I was visualizing the contrast of a small group of folks gathering in the urban chapel in Portland. I was not sure why people came to our church on Christmas Eve, what they were expecting from God and me. I was not sure of how to speak about such a mystery to families. I was at a loss to make God real for people who gather one night a year with profound cultural expectations about Christmas.
Just before the third Mass of the evening at Sacred Heart, I took my post at the door. I noticed an older gentleman walk up the steps of the entrance. His wife wearing an oversized wool coat was slow to take the stairs and remained tightly next to her husband’s side. I extended my hand to him and he politely received my greeting. I welcomed his wife but she did not respond. The husband quickly took her hand and led her into the church.
I stared at the couple and I realized that the woman wrapped in wool was suffering from some form of dementia. The husband’s quick gesture to take her hand was his way of not only keeping her safe but also his way of keeping her illness a secret or at bay for at least one more Christmas Eve. I felt my heart open as I realized that these people coming to Eucharist on Christmas Eve are no different from any community. We are all suffering on such a silent night with deep expectations that life, family and even our bodies are to be perfect given society’s expectations about what Christmas means.
On that Christmas Eve in my new role as pastor, I realized that suffering on Christmas Eve is so often camouflaged. Family relationships are tender and hidden behind the exhausted faces of parents. The loss of family life for the elderly is so veiled behind the quiet presence of grandparents in the second pew. On Christmas Eve, young parents cover their anger about the fact that their marriage may not survive another year.
As I ponder the gospels of the Christmas season, I am aware again that Jesus is born in camouflage among people who did not have room for him. Among the animals during the nighttime, the Savior brought hope. Jesus still runs after the lost, the forsaken and hope abounds when we finally become aware that God is among us for real. Even when we try to hide our human needs, God breaks through our lonely hearts. Christmas is for those who believe that they cannot make it through one more night in pain.
The shepherds got word that God was born in the camouflage of straw and darkness. Even Kings followed a star to find their way through the darkness where another King was born among people in poverty. Our Savior still makes his home among those bundled in wool to protect themselves from the cold and the exposure of their disease. Jesus even strips us of our grief when we finally trust again that we cannot control the past or fix people in the present.
Mary the Mother of God models for us a life of fidelity and it is at Christmas that we all wish we could make our home in the mercy of her Son. Mary helps us all become aware that love abounds in the limitless mercy of God. I want Mary to hold the hands of those whose bodies are growing weaker and whose lives are shattered by disbelief that God could be born in their pain.
On Christmas Eve, my desire is for all ministers of the Eucharist to know that God’s mercy is revealed among the lost, the lonely and weak. There is no hiding from the God who desires to be among the fray. Our ministries must help people find their way up stairs of our churches and into the rituals that will expose love among them.
On Christmas Eve, the Mass is more that gold cups, elaborate decorations and perfect music. On this night we help unveil the mystery that is often camouflaged among the poinsettias and artificial trees. Our ministry especially on Christmas Eve is not a performance of perfection, but a rich and deep belief that God is being revealed among the quiet desperation of people who struggle to make it up the stairs of our churches.