For years now, attending Catholic Mass at midnight has become my favorite Christmas tradition, an admittedly odd confession as a convinced Protestant.
This marriage of unequals began in 2013, after one of my dearest friends, a spit-fire little Italian Catholic woman who spent the better part of five years teaching me how to minister to women in crisis pregnancies, invited me to her parish for the special service.
She was a devout Roman Catholic. My faith burned Restorationist to the core.
Two worlds on a collision course.
However, out of respect for her and an insatiable curiosity for all things religious, I obliged one Christmas Eve.
And I have been obliging ever since.
As it is with too many people, the Christmas season does not immediately fill me with thoughts of holly or jolly.
Be it life stress, family stress, a body running empty of melatonin, or simply an atmosphere of compulsory cheer, as the days get shorter, I find myself retreating into the darkness of my own mind.
Christmas skits designed for parents of young children and grandparents certainly have their place, but the dissonance between what I feel versus the lights and laughter of the program rings deafeningly hollow inside me.
This is precisely why I appreciate the Christmas Mass.
As the somber expectancy of Advent gives way to the serious and reverent joy of Immanuel here with us, so to are the dark clouds around my heart driven away by the light of the star that marks the place where my Savior lay.
Carols intoned. Scripture read. Drinking deeply from the waft of the censer.
I am consumed by the magnanimity of an event far greater than any of my emotions.
And as I lose myself, I see the true meaning of Christmas emerge, wrapped in swaddling clothes, crying for his mother.
Still, this is not a drunken spirit of uncritical ecumenism.
At the heart of the Christmas Mass, as at the heart of every Mass celebrated in the Catholic Church, is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ, a re-presentation itself understood as expiatory (a doctrine difficult to accept in light of Hebrews 10:1-18).
I am also sensitive to my friends in Mexico (where I visit and minister often) and elsewhere in Latin American (and the world), who have come out of the Catholic Church to evangelical faith in Christ and whose ancestors attended such services at the point of a Conquistador’s sword.
Seated on the parish church pew at the back of the sanctuary, I exist simultaneously as an observer, a participant, and a dissenter.
Yet, how can I deny that the Spirit moves where he wishes and to inhabit that paradox is to recognize God is bigger than the sectarian categories we often use to define Him?
So, I will go to Mass tonight, grateful for a child born in a manger, cognizant of the theological differences between myself and those around me, and trusting in a God wise enough to sort us out.
As the holiday rolls awkwardly into the 26th and my foray into an ancient church is done, I hope I will more clearly understand why I believe what I believe and be a little better equipped to appreciate the faith of those who love Jesus differently than I do.
Until next Christmas.
Editor’s note: A version of this essay was first published at Unpretentious Spiritual Musings.
Photo by HAM guy