Most churches offer some kind of a Christmas Eve service, but few put on a true Midnight Mass, which just happens to have been my mom’s favorite service of the year. The tradition started many hundreds of years ago when Christians began to hold vigils in preparation for important feasts, Christmas being among them. It is so named because the truest form of the service would begin at midnight, but Mom much preferred the ones that begin at 11:00 and end as Christmas Day is ringing in.
One thing I loved about my mom was, if her church didn’t offer a particular observance that she loved, she would simply find another church to visit for the occasion. Growing up, we went to Lutheran churches for Good Friday services, Messianic Jewish gatherings for Seder meals, and Methodist chapels for Longest Night readings. I learned early on to be comfortable as a visitor and to see the value in learning diverse methods of practicing our faith.
The first Christmas Eve Midnight Mass I remember attending felt simultaneously solemn, jubilant, and indulgent. First of all, we got to stay up late to attend (which meant an extra pass at the cookie jar after bedtime to help us stay awake). Since we were visitors in another congregation, we also got to put on our very best Sunday clothes and shiniest shoes. It kind of felt like we were going to a late-night party with the grown-ups.
Most of the rest of what I remember is just images and impressions. I knew all of the songs because they were traditional Christmas hymns. The sermon went a little long for my personal tastes (as did they all at that time), but I knew the passage from Luke 2 by heart (thank you, A Charlie Brown Christmas!). I was warm and sleepy, calm and comfortable within this new place and experience.
The part I remember most clearly was the candle-lighting ceremony. When we first entered the sanctuary, we were each given one of those small white candles with the paper discs around the middle. Near the end of the service, the pastor said a few words, then lit his candle from one on the altar. He used his to light the candles of two ushers, then they went into the congregation and began passing the light to the people at the ends of each pew. Within minutes, the entire body of believers was alight as we sang “Silent Night” in unison.
Standing in the light of all those candles and our glowing faces that Christmas Eve, I felt for the first time what it meant to be one with the body of believers. With our candles held near chest level, we all looked pretty much the same – our differences smoothed out and blended together in the warm, amber glow of the candles. Our individual flames came together to make one giant light that limned the room so all could see.
On the way home that night, I was transfixed by the light of the stars burning outside my car window. I couldn’t help but think that if they weren’t so separated from each other, the stars could light the earth more effectively. If all those stars could unite into one big light in the middle, no shadow on earth could escape their shine.
They’d be just like the sun.