The welcome mat is out at Catholic churches across the country. Actually it's always out, but churches tend to emphasize their open arms and doors during Advent and Christmas and later on in Lent and at Easter.
There's something in the season that makes you think of home -- including the spiritual home some are too busy to visit throughout the year. The message of the Prince of Peace, the carols learned in childhood, the large-as-life crèches, and the overflowing poinsettias have a way of warming even a cold heart.
The options are many.
For a sense of building excitement, some go to the children's Mass, usually on December 24, in late afternoon. Being with the preschoolers can be a trip back to one's own childhood. If the pastor is a creative liturgist, it can be a breathtaking experience. Some years ago my family had the experience of St. Vincent's DePaul Church in Albany, New York. The church was filled with children in rapt attention as Father O'Brien read the Gospel. Then, when he spoke of the birth of Jesus, little white lights on the tree near the manger in the sanctuary came on. There was an audible gasp from young and old alike, breathlessness worthy of the birth of Jesus.
Midnight Mass, especially when it's at 10 p.m. or earlier for oldsters like me, is often preceded by carols about the Little Town of Bethlehem, the Holy Night, and Angels Heard on High. The effect is calming, especially after a day wrapping, shopping for the last gift, or making goodies for Christmas Day. People are just a little more pleasant, some sporting new Christmas ties and sweaters, to indicate that the celebration of the Savior's birth has begun. There is a sense of community in the air that lasts even in the overcrowded parking lot.
Both liturgies are popular so regulars who plan to attend know to get there early enough to get into the church parking lot or find street parking within quarter mile. I've occasionally cheated and had someone save me a seat -- though it takes some nerve to walk past the standers when you arrive just 10 minutes before Mass.
Occasionally I've gone to Mass in nursing homes and rehab centers, and Mass is crowded there too as people seek to share a special moment with sick and dying friends and family. You'd think this would be sad, but it is not. The holiness of the evening or morning overshadows pain and weakness, especially when families are together celebrating the Holy Family in Bethlehem.
The Mass is special, a statement of the community drawn together by something and Someone larger than itself. The pageantry of Christmas reminds us that Mass is not a routine event, that it holds special meaning. It reminds us of good values we have, such as trust in another, the unseen yet ever-present God; the awareness that power is made perfect in the helplessness of an infant who can hold us captive in the wonderment of new life; and the joy of being with others who share our spiritual roots. We may have forgotten but the baby brings them to mind.
It's worth the crowded parking lot or even standing in the back. Like grandparents' special cake, or Mom and Dad's stocking-bedecked mantel, the church that beckons people to come home for Christmas puts out the best - scents, decorations, and especially the Eucharistic food -- for her loved ones.
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