I love Advent, but I have sort of struggled with Christmas the last couple years. There’s this bizarre thing that seems to happen where holidays would be a bit more meaningful or special if one had a significant other. I’m not sure why that is, but I know friends who have experienced the same thing. We feel extra lonely at the holidays, we feel more alone, we feel, you know?
So I went to Midnight Mass with a single friend. She came from a married friend’s house, to pick me up at my parent’s house where I was the only single, and the pair of us went to the Basilica downtown. We arrived 15 minutes before the service was to start, illegally parked in an apartment lot in a spot marked “reserved” and skipped across nearly empty streets burdened by other illegally parked cars. Two sheriffs, one short and squatty, another tall with mangy red hair greeted us as we darted up the stars. “Merry Christmas,” and we sand back the words as we hurried inside.
The Mass had begun with a service of carols and apparently thats when the entire state’s population of Italian, Polish and washed out white American Catholics had descended upon the Cathedral. We were in the back, with less space than standing room only. We were in the foyer, our necks craned around the doors to see inside.
But suddenly the same sheriff who had greeted us on our way in was suddenly in the back of the church with us, “‘Scuse me people,” said the short and squatty one, “we gotta make some room, I got the Archbishop comin’ in.” And he said that as he moved up through the crowd to where it thinned just past the last few rows of pews. We made way, and then they filtered in from outside. It was beautiful, the deacons and lecterns in their black covered in white, the bishop and archbisop in golden robes and he with his starched and pointed cap. They were whispering and we were all staring, I think, in a bit of shock, or more with awe. How did we, who had arrived last, come so close to greatness? They lit incense and for a moment, the cloud was thick so we couldn’t quite breath. And then, with the bells chiming overhead, they held high the Bible and with the crucifix swaying on its pole high above us, they began the prcoession. A little girl in a red dress with staticky hair clipped back by a tiny bow carried a figure of the baby Jesus and they went to the altar.
Eventually, after the homily, after the Eucharist, enough people left so that we were able to be in the sanctuary, leaning against the baptismal font in a very unholy manner. We sang Joy to the World in loud, clear voices as they came back down with their straight and somber faces–which seemed such a tragedy. He’s here! He’s here, we sang, Joy! Joy! But they had only long faces of reverence in their processional. Maybe it’s something they learn at the Catholic Seminary.
Archbishop Chaputo stood at the door and shook our hands as we left (though I am sure there are many he missed because we poured out through side doors and back doors and in clumps and pairs so he could not have touched or blessed us all). But I wanted to shake his hand, probably just so I could say afterward that I had done so. And I think I wanted to look the man in the eye who had denied me communion while praising Jesus and honouring his sacrifice of infinite reality become contained.
“Merry Christmas!” he said cheerfully, his round face wrinkled.
“Happy Advent!” I replied. He looked startled: how many people come to Midnight Mass and use such language as “advent” in every day conversation?
“Well thank you, but it’s over now!” he said merrily.
“Oh!” I was startled myself and momentarily reconsidered my statement, “right! He’s here!” Ingrid, my friend, was laughing ahead of me, already making her way down the steps to the street. I pranced out to the stairs and hopped down them like a child. “He’s here!”
Christmas can be hard sometimes, but I think the great news of Jesus is that he came in to this space and entered our sorrows. He knows what it’s like to be lonely and he’s felt the deep longing to be with someone else, to be known. I love Advent, the anticipation of someone coming to heal our wounds, to set the world free from her self imposed slavery and crushing burden. This year, I can’t stop thinking about Ashland. I want to walk in the rain again, wander through a small town and loiter amid bookshelves while drinking chocolate and breathing hard on icy hands. I want garlic french fries, blueberry french toast, pizza and peanut brittle from a bright blue tin. I miss that little guest house, with the leaking toilet, the bedroom floor with a soft mattress and quilts piled high, and a tree branch scraping against the window. I miss Ashland, and on Christmas Eve, I even missed Trailmark and Waterton Canyon by bicycle.
But the beauty of Jesus is that he isn’t shaking his head in dismay. He’s chilling in Popí’s office with me, enjoying a much needed episode of Psych. He knows what I’m dealing with, what everyone is dealing with, because he felt it too. He sent the Spirit who walks with us because the beauty of the incarnation is that he came down as one of us and did life with us, among us. And he knows. I went to Mass because the incense wafting to the distant rafters, the chanting, the recitation, the kneeling, it made it real. It was consuming to be saturated in the five senses by the presence of God. But the enveloping reality was also a good reminder that Jesus came in among us. And we’ll be alright, because he knows what it’s like.