By Tim Hayes
Nothing felt right that Christmas Eve, and it had put me in a bad mood.
I followed my parents, sisters, and grandmother into church for Midnight Mass, only to find that “our” pew – the one we had populated for years – had been usurped by a bunch of “twice-a-year” Catholics. So we traipsed over to a side section that felt like we had sailed into uncharted waters.
A bitterly cold night, we all had bundled to the brim. At the same time, the overflow Christmas Eve crowd (see “twice-a-year” Catholics, above) meant more people smashed into smaller spaces. So when you added the extra heat generated from this unusual crush of humanity, plus every member of the congregation wrapped in his or her warmest winter outerwear, you knew the place was primed for clammy skin, sweaty brows, and heightened odds that somebody in the building would pass out before we got to Communion.
Midnight Mass also meant an extended version of the typical service, so we wouldn’t get home until close to 2 a.m., and first had to endure creaky old Father up there, with his dry, boring sermon and his slow shuffle around the altar, all while suffering in this sweatbox, sitting in a part of the church I don’t think I’d ever even set foot in before.
Had any other 16-year-old ever had to contend with such stifling inconvenience? I ask you.
Plus, it had taken too many bus rides, far too much shoe leather, and all of my limited funds to get presents for my family and a couple close friends. Outside of the otherworldly feast on Christmas Day at Grandma’s – where my siblings, cousins, and I could absolutely gorge ourselves on ham, homemade bread and lasagna, meatballs the size of billiards, and more of her trademark cookies than you could count – it would be so good to get this whole Christmas thing over with.
As Midnight Mass lumbered on, I may have heard a muffled thud from somewhere behind us, as the heat claimed its first victim. (Called it!) Father somehow finished his interminable homily, then the consecration of the bread and wine, followed in time by Communion. Finally, a chance to get up and walk around a bit. Maybe breathe some new air.
We all walked up, took Communion, and returned to our pew. The choir had been singing during this time and finished its selection. While the rest of the congregation continued coming up to the front of church, the choir began “Silent Night.”
I sat there, in my misplaced adolescent assuredness, impatiently checking my watch, and waiting for the choir to finish this old holiday musical chestnut. Then I happened to look down the pew. Don’t ask me why; I don’t know. Maybe it was a teenaged scattershot attention span. Maybe it was a reflexive way to alleviate boredom.
Or maybe it was something else. Something – someone? – from above.
As I turned my head, I looked at my mother. As our parish’s tired, old, but always game, choir softly sang “Silent Night,” I saw a single tear trickle down my mom’s face.
And, suddenly, the nonsensical American commercialized hijacking of Christmas fell away – and my immature snit-fit with it. The reality of a teenaged girl who had just given birth in a corral for farm animals burst into consciousness instead.
“Christmas” dissolved, and the “Nativity” emerged.
To think that this story really happened! It wasn’t a fable. It wasn’t a fairly tale. It had been rehashed so many times, as to become as faded, smooth, familiar, and taken for granted as the stained-glass windows all around us.
But it actually took place. An amazing epiphany. How did Mary get through it? Did Joseph know how to help her? Was she terrified? How bad was the pain? Did she scream? Was she exhausted? And then the baby – Did he look like any other newborn? Was there something about him that marked him as unusual or special, even holy? What did Joseph think about all this? Did the cows and sheep smell bad? And who were these shepherd guys showing up out of nowhere? How did they know where to find the three of them in this nondescript, ramshackle stable?
It’s an incredible story. The story of a miracle. A story that set into motion a shift in time and history. But before all of that magnificence and spectacle entered our consciousness, there were just a husband, a young wife, and an infant – all alone in an unfamiliar town in the most unexpected of places to give birth.
My mother knew what it took to bring new life into the world. She knew the miracle of raising three healthy children. She knew the invaluable contribution of a trusted, loving husband. She knew what Mary had to be thinking and feeling that night. That incredible silent night.
So she shed a single tear of love and pride and appreciation. And it changed the Christmas experience for me, for the rest of my life. Thanks, Mom. I love you.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes