December 25th, 2020
It was cold last night. It was that kind of bone-chilling cold that usually doesn’t arrive here in Wisconsin until late January. As I drove past the bank on Four Mile Road, I could see the temperature on the sign:
“Nine degrees (Fahrenheit)”.
Good Lord. Well, at least it wasn’t snowing. The roads were clear. The car didn’t warm up until I was almost all the way to the church.
It was after 10:00 PM, and I was going to Midnight Mass at St. Rita. I had volunteered to read from the Scriptures during the liturgy. I think I had agreed to serve as lector before COVID ripped through our house. I wasn’t sick anymore, but I felt tired. I had been told that the fatigue from the virus could last for weeks, and that’s a fact.
I got to the church, and I asked Father Michael about which readings I should use (there are a number of different readings for Mass on Christmas). He told me to use the Scripture passages for the Christmas Mass at Dawn. That was interesting since we were starting this service at 11:00 PM (and still calling it “Midnight Mass”).
The first reading was from Isaiah. It starts with: “See, the LORD proclaims to the ends of the earth: say to daughter Zion, your savior comes!” (Isaiah 62:11-12). I like to read to the congregation from Isaiah. His words have an emotional impact.
The second reading was from a letter of St. Paul. (Titus: 3:4-7). I hate proclaiming passages from Paul’s letters. The man loved to write long sentences with numerous subordinate clauses and subsections. It is nearly impossible to read aloud from St. Paul without getting lost in his verbiage. The part I was supposed to read from the Letter to Titus was just one, extremely convoluted sentence. Nice.
I sat down in a pew, and rested for a bit. The Mass wasn’t going to start for another few minutes. I looked around the church, and I let my mind wander.
I remembered a Midnight Mass from many years ago, when I was just a kid. When I was a boy, my family went to Mass at St. Augustine Church. It was a small ethnic church in a working class neighborhood. The people in the parish were mostly Croatian, either immigrants or children of immigrants. One Mass every Sunday was celebrated in Croatian. The elderly folks were often people who fled from Europe after World War II. I suspect that a few of the old guys had been part of the Ustashi (the Croatian fascist troops who were allied with the Nazis). When the war ended, Marshall Tito and the partisans strongly encouraged members of the Ustashi to leave Yugoslavia. I think some of them wound up in Wisconsin.
Midnight Mass at St. Augustine in West Allis was always packed with people. The old men huddled together with their wives. The wooden pews in the church had little metal clips on the back. These were there to hold the fedoras that these old Hunkies wore. All these guys wore hats outside, and they all smelled of cigar smoke. The women wore veils. That was still standard practice in those days.
There were two evergreen trees in the sanctuary, on either side of the altar. They were real trees, so the church smelled of pine resin, beeswax candles, and incense. There were lights on the trees; the old school Christmas lights with big, colored bulbs that burned brightly. The lights would get hot, and it was easy to burn your hand if you touched a light.
Midnight Mass in those days still had a lot of the Latin Mass ritual to it. There were lots of bells and smells. There was a sense of mystery and wonder. That was a good thing.
I stopped woolgathering, and looked around St. Rita’s. People were slowly drifting in from the cold and the darkness outside. The crowd was pretty thin. That was understandable. We were celebrating Midnight Mass during a pandemic. It was the middle of the night. It was cold as hell outside. I didn’t expect many folks to venture forth from their homes.
There was still time before the Mass would start. So, I remembered another Midnight Mass from long ago.
It was in Bethlehem in 1983. I was traveling through Israel with two friends. We were staying in a hotel in Jerusalem. The tour guide offered us an excursion to the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve. We went.
Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem. It was a short bus ride from our hotel to Manger Square. There were numerous Israeli troops all around us. Nothing is more festive than seeing a bunch of guys with loaded Uzis. When we got off the the bus, we wandered into chaos.
There was absolutely no chance of us getting inside the church for Midnight Mass. None. The people inside the ancient church knew people who knew people. We were stuck in Manger Square with the hucksters, folks who were trying to sell pieces of the Lord’s swaddling clothing. The square was crowded and noisy. There was a large screen set up for people that wanted to watch the Mass remotely. That was pointless. The event in Manger Square had all the religious significance of a Packer game. We could hear the vendors yelling:
“Here! Buy falafel! Just like the falafel Jesus ate!”
Maybe it was just like the falafel Jesus ate. I don’t know.
Somewhere in the dark, there was the noise of firecrackers, or maybe gunshots. The Israeli soldiers ran quickly toward those sounds. My friends and I got back on the bus, and returned to Jerusalem. Debbie, Mark, and I then went directly to the bar in the hotel, and toasted Christmas from there.
It was time for Mass to start at St. Rita. Father Michael had accosted me earlier, and asked,
“Do you have a pyx to take Communion back to Karin?”
I told him, “Yes.”
Karin wasn’t feeling strong enough to go to church with me. Father Michael knew that.
For those who don’t know, a “pyx”, is a small metal container (usually gold in color) used to bring the Eucharist (the wafer of bread that is also the Body of Christ) back to people who are unable to attend Mass. Communion is a big deal in the Catholic Church. There is no bigger deal. The Mass is the center of Catholic spiritual life, and the Eucharist is the center of the Mass. There are many levels of meaning to Communion. Sharing Communion binds us together in Christ. It’s difficult to explain. Either you get it or you don’t. For one person receiving Communion is the purest and deepest connection with the Incarnate God that is possible. To somebody else, it is just eating a cracker.
I read in front of the congregation. That exhausted me. Reading from Scripture is always an intense experience for me. Last night it left me feeling drained.
Later, I got in line (socially distanced) for Communion. I want to Deacon Greg, and I held out the open pyx.
He asked me, “Only one?”
Greg put the Eucharist into the pyx, and I snapped the lid shut. Then he lifted up another host and said,
“The Body of Christ.”
I replied, “Amen.”
Mass ended with a few people singing “Joy to the World.”
I walked out the front door. The wind whipped across my face.
It was snowing.