For many years, Midnight Mass was my worship of choice on Christmas Eve, but when we turned 60 or thereabouts we retreated to the earlier 9 PM Mass, and then with 70 in view, we recently retreated further to 7 PM Mass. I don't think we can go back any further, as my parish already has two Masses simultaneously at 4 PM, a logistical challenge excelled only when all the nighttime fireworks displays at Disney end at the same time during Christmas week.
Our 7 PM Mass on Christmas Eve is always a full house. It is designated a "life teen" Mass, but I'm not sure the designation affects attendance. I think the early-evening hour—the first Christmas Mass in true darkness--is an attractive time slot. It may be my memory is short, but I don't ever remember a bigger congregation for that time slot than last Saturday’s. In our case, we wisely arrived shortly after 6, for parking and seating. While Margaret was in the sacristy—she was an assigned lector--I set off to find us a pew. For whatever reason, the lectors have no assigned seating, just resourceful spouses who reconnoiter a spot.
In my case, there were several key factors in the search parameter. First, I needed seating for two on the end of a pew so that my wife could gracefully process to the altar in time to proclaim the Prophet Isaiah’s Good News. Second, the pew must be close to the front of the church for us to experience the sacrament of Eucharist as a true visible sign. At 5'9" in my good shoes pew six is my limit. My wife is considerably shorter, so I estimate pew 3 or maybe 4 is her limit. It is remarkable to me that in a fourteen-year-old structure constructed exclusively for sacraments--visible outward signs--90% of the assembly does not have an unencumbered view of them.
As luck would have it, the 7 PM Mass of Christmas Eve was also the designated signed Mass for the hearing impaired. (I should probably read the bulletin more closely.) Again, there is no concrete designation about which precise pews are reserved for the deaf, more of a gentlemen's agreement, I guess. Given the sight lines of my church, these pews must also be in the very front of the assembly to be effective for those who need the signing service. Thus, factoring in these considerations, I took my chances with the end of pew three, which I was lucky to get, and none too soon because even with 45 minutes remaining till Mass, the house was filling up quickly.
As I mentioned above, I was surprised at the size of the turnout, which included many families with small children. As a weekly worshipper, it was hard for me to avoid the contrast in attendance between Christmas Eve and a "typical weekend." Evidently my pastor was thinking the same thing, as I will talk about on Friday.
The concert before Mass was well underway when we arrived; the parish had provided an hour of live music prior to each Mass. The music from the life teen choir was quite good, though I must admit I did not recognize most of the Christmas songs, which I suspect were of recent vintage. By 6:45 the ushers were becoming more inventive in finding standing room for the continuing stream of folks; I believe our seating capacity is about 1200, though I hope they weren’t using me as the standard seating template. At 6:55 the choir sang Leonard Cohen's "Alleluia" followed by “O Holy Night.” Margaret, who was in the sacristy awaiting the procession with the clergy, asked one of them to explain the lyrics of “Alleluia,” though I’m not sure anyone back there had penetrated the full meaning of the poetry, either.
At the solemn hour of 7 PM the procession began with many altar servers, concelebrants, my wife bearing the gold Book of the Gospels—and a little coterie of seminarians wearing black cassocks. Given the bright lights, the Christmas decorations and music, the festive white vestments of the priests, and even Margaret’s cheerful fashion selections for the high holy day, the cluster of solemn men dressed in black was a curious optic. I will again address this on Friday, as I continue my Christmas thoughts. For most of the Mass, though, I suspect there were many more folks preoccupied with children—their own and the children around them. In all my years in this parish (20) I have never heard or seen a priest say an unkind word about a fussy child. This is not to say that every parishioner has behaved likewise. When I was confronted with a bawling child—and usually a terribly embarrassed mother—while preaching I used to joke from the pulpit that “the nice thing about babies is that they can say what all you adults are only thinking.”
Of course, this Christmas Eve collection of so many children of many ages does swing back to the architecture of many churches, not just my own. If you are six years old and seated in pew 26, what precisely is the magnetism of the sacrament if one cannot see it? Let alone the anticipation of Santa and high ingestion of sugar. Our young ‘uns in most churches cannot see the Mass. They are staring into the posteriors of adults in front of them. The difficulty lies with faulty design; pastors and bishops approve construction and renovation plans for what are essentially Eucharistic reservation chapels and call them churches. Liturgically and historically a “church” is the gathering place for sacraments, and its design must facilitate full human participation of the senses. No one has researched the relationship of church architecture to church attendance, but I doubt that the relationship is negligible.
You may be asking yourself if there is Church legislation on the layout of worship assemblies. The most recent statement of the USCCB is Built of Living Stones in 2000, and I quote para. 31 here:
§ 31 § 2.
The church building fosters participation in the liturgy. Because liturgical actions by their nature are communal celebrations, they are celebrated with the presence and active participation of the Christian faithful whenever possible.38 Such participation, both internal and external, is the faithful's "right and duty by reason of their baptism."39 The building itself can promote or hinder the "full, conscious, and active participation" of the faithful. Parishes making decisions about the design of a church must consider how the various aspects and choices they make will affect the ability of all the members to participate fully in liturgical celebrations.
If you ever sit on a parish council or advisory board, I suggest you memorize this text.
The Vigil Mass itself was celebrated well. The celebrant was our recently ordained associate, and his homily was domestic and simple, probably appropriate for the very mixed population that included so many young. Not to beat a dead horse here, but the distribution of the Eucharist—the soul of participation—was hampered, as it often is, by design issues. In Florida until very recently it was the practice of pastors to squeeze as much seating space into churches as possible, thus resulting in limited space for anything else such as traffic flow for distribution of the Eucharist under both forms, for example. I have presided at funerals in churches where it was nearly impossible to turn the casket around. At Christmas, when the church is beyond capacity, such design problems become particularly acute.
After communion, our pastor, as is his custom, addressed himself in particular to the Catholics in attendance who join us only at Christmastime. I want to talk about his message, probably on Friday’s post. This was followed by an appeal for more men to become priests, although my parish also has a community of religious women who wear habits that are not black.
The Mass concluded with a rousing rendition of “Joy to the World,” with drums, bass, and clapping hands. There was no hurry to leave, as it was well past 8 and the 9 PM congregation was already circling the parking lot like a gridlock of hungry sharks. One of the most heartwarming parts of the evening was the large numbers of children, adolescents, and adults who wanted to greet my wife. Having served as the founding principal of the school with an eighteen-year tenure, the little preschoolers of 1996 are now “rebuilding the world” and starting to send their children to the academy. Add to that the two decades of parents and you can understand that she is a “rock star” still after three years of retirement.
Reunions of all sorts and sizes were breaking out in the church until the staff flickered the lights so the 9 PM ensemble could take seats. And so another Christmas Vigil Mass was recorded in my book of life. But I do want to pick up on my pastor’s thoughts on Friday’s blog and my own spiritual reaction to the Christmas celebration on Sunday.