I remember the year I was old enough to go to Midnight Mass. My uncle was in town for Christmas, and he took me — just me, no siblings — to the darkest, most mysterious Mass of the whole year. I was probably 10, the youngest of five, and all of my siblings were now too old to be charmed by the ritual of staying up late, dressed in your finest clothes, going to a drafty old church and singing Christmas hymns. But for me, it was pure rapture.
Uncle John was my mom’s older brother, and a Roman Catholic priest. He was high on my list of adults I admired; parents, grandma, my oldest brother, a softball coach, my terrifying Aunt Joyce and a piano teacher. I longed to be a priest too, because of their ineffable knowledge and direct connection to God, their cool holiday vestments and permission to serve Communion. And exorcisms! They could cast out the devil simply by using Latin and their incredible faith! They were heroes!
We dressed for church, Uncle John in his green cardigan — he always wore green, because he was an Irish priest, it was some kind of contractual obligation — and me in my plaid wool skirt with tights and my dress shoes spit-polished earlier in the day. I had my hair pulled to one side in the front with a barrette, a fact that is either becoming clearer as I focus on it or being created out of whole cloth as I tell this story.
What I do remember clearly is walking into the crowded church with my uncle the priest on the most solemn and quiet of holy days. The smell of incense clung to the carpets and padded pews, the thrilling combination of smoke and song leading the faithful to worship. Everyone in church could tell he was a priest from his clerical collar, but no one knew who he was. But he was with me! An exotic priest from Michigan walking in with little Meggy from Mrs. Heide’s 3rd grade class. I marched in behind him with my head high and my back straight and proud. I was with a Catholic all star.
We sat along the left side of the sanctuary, close to the front right in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary. The pews were narrow along that row, seating only three or four people, and we squeezed in next to fellow parishioners and knelt to pray. Uncle John was even more reverent than my mother, his rosary clicking against the wood as he mouthed words I would never know.
I knelt beside him, listening to the hum of the organ and the shuffle of feet of all the hundreds of people still coming in the door. The crèche, hand carved by one of our longtime parishioners, stood in front of the altar, Mary’s hands pressed together like my uncle’s, more reverent than the casual folded hands. Baby Jesus had his arms out as if He was beckoning the whole world to come to Him, come to this baby with curiously curly, honey-colored hair and He will take care of you.
The processional started and we all stood. A parade of altar boys, acolytes and priests marched in, the lights in the cavernous space too dim to bring much more than shadows. Dark coats and hats, the smell of damp wool mittens and boot liners mixed with the lingering incense and the breath of a couple hundred parishioners singing our joy at the birth of our tiny baby Jesus who was here to save us.
It was time for the song I was sure had come directly from the time Jesus walked the earth.
It’s an antiphon, intended to focus the mind of the singers on the approach of the Big Day. It sure worked for me, the great oval thrumming in my chest calling out to the Power of God. My mother believed that singing was praying twice, and here I was, singing and praying in church during the best Mass of the whole year standing right next to a priest. Church had never been so exciting before, and has never been since.
The rest of Mass is a blur. There were readings and responses and offeratories, more songs and then one very long line for Holy Communion. I would fold my hands above the waist, as Father Roberts had scolded us to do. I would show that I was worthy of being my uncle-the-priest’s guest for the evening, of being up well past my bedtime on Christmas Eve, worthy of this mystical honor of Midnight Mass.
There was snow on the steps outside the church, of that I am sure. There was always snow on Christmas when I was a girl in the suburbs of Chicago. I can feel the crunch under my feet, and the biting cold of the air. After Mass, I was exhausted but ecstatic, ready to rush home and tell my brothers about the incredible experience I’d just had. Uncle John drove us home in his green car. Every car he had was green.
My family was asleep except my mother, sitting up in her recliner end of the couch, cigarette in hand, unable to sleep until everyone was home. She had been to Midnight Mass many times before, and listened to my chatter for a few moments before sending me off to bed. I said goodnight to my uncle, who would sleep on the hide-a-bed in the living room where the Christmas tree stood. I trundled up to my room, where I burrowed into the deep covers, my nose poking out into the frigid room.
I dreamed, I am sure, of the interplay of starlight and candlelight, the crisp air clapping against the dense incense smoke, the deep dark of post-Mass 2 a.m. and the coming early dawn of Christmas morning.
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