Our priest swirls chrism onto our infant daughter's freshly baptized head. His tenderness makes the angels sigh. She looks into his eyes. She does not know that throughout her nine months' sojourn in the womb, this priest blessed her tiny, hidden frame each time I went up for communion. He scoops her into his arms and then lifts her for all to see. Applause welcomes her into the Christian family. For days after, women and men of the parish come to bury their faces in her scented hair, filling their senses with the promise of new life.
Midnight Mass begins at midnight, not a second sooner. It is not for the faint of heart. Snow covers the roads and is still falling. Inside, the church is warm and bedecked with greenery and gold. There is no guessing that this is a high holy day. The violin and organ, candles and incense, everyone in their very best, all such extravagances declare the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
We are tired and hungry. The altar is bare; the tabernacle, empty. It is Friday, and Sunday seems far away. It is a stark day, a deep contrast to the night before and the Saturday night to come. But it holds its own beauty. Kneeling at the rough-hewn cross, people adore with meek kisses. Music stops. Silence waits.
They run up to my car, my two younger sons. There is a lingering fragrance of incense in their clothes and hair as they climb in and buckle up. The older boy shows me a new blister on his thumb from the censer. It's not a complaint, but rather a showing off. They regret that Father had to remind them about a few details during Mass. But Father is a kind man. There is no sense of failure, only a will to remember better next time, because details in funerals are holy, no matter who is being buried.
My oldest daughter is flushed after hours of work in minutiae. Her patience in learning the art from women in our church rewards her with accomplishment. She holds up the string of beads crafted by her nimble hands. It hangs in perfect symmetry, a sign of excellence. Each bead is from careful selection. The crucifix and medal are treasures found on different days, months apart, but they are an elegant match. The rosary is ready for prayer.
My oldest son is the second lector at the Mass. He is not gregarious, but he is not shy. His weeks are full of little things that few notice. He likes praying in the Adoration chapel. He defends the Sacrament of Reconciliation to someone and explains the Eucharist to another. He stays up late listening to a grieving friend. He goes with me to take comfort food to a distressed family. As he reads from a letter of St. Paul, the words are not meaningless to him.
The four-year-old runs to the altar of Our Lady and prays loudly, even though we told her heaven doesn't need her to shout. She dances around the baby, who has crawled up to St. Michael's altar, her favorite place to practice standing. When we leave the sanctuary, the four-year-old runs to another altar and bows her head for seconds. Then lifts her beaming face and blows kisses.
The white-haired priest in the little chapel raises the Host at the consecration, and the baby claps. She raises her hands and coos. Then claps again. For several Masses in a row, each time the priest raises the Host, the baby repeats her gleeful routine. Anyone who notices is delighted. They say babies see angels and laugh; maybe babies also see the miracle of the epiclesis and cheer.
My husband's musing from years ago comes to mind: Catholicism is for Christians who need a lot of hand holding. I think we became Catholic because we realized we are not exempt from needing our hands to be held. We need what Protestants see as extraneous.
Intermingled with all the sacred is the messiness of our lives. We suffer from a dark sense of humor, staying up too late reading (or watching movies), and losing patience. We get busy and neglect chores. Try as we might to be timely, procrastination is still a blooming work of art in our family. Kids misbehave during Mass; not everyone wakes up on the sunny side; debating seems to be a favorite pastime.
We are imperfect, but in our Catholic faith, we find solace and strength.
If the Sacraments are crutches, then the more we partake of them, the better. If we are weak because we need beauty to draw our minds to God, then let us be frail. If we are scrupulous because we find glory in the details, then let us be pedantic. If we are simpleminded because we feel closer to Jesus in our fasting, then let us be stupid. If we are too sensual because we revel in smells and bells, then let us celebrate that Jesus' senses were filled when He prayed in the Temple. If we are gluttons because feast days bolster our faith, then let us exult that they called Jesus a glutton, too.
If Catholicism is superfluous Christianity, then let us be overwhelmed. Each symbol and gesture is Gospel. Every sacrament is grace. Let us be poor and needy that we may be filled evermore.
©2018 Emily Woodham
(Photo Credit: Pixabay)