The church was as lovely as I have ever seen it. A wall of poinsettias was set before the altar. Evergreens glowing with white lights were draped in red ribbons were tucked in every alcove. The music was perfect – a soloist accompanied by the harp and the piano – and the priest, a retired bishop, was all that you want a Catholic clergyman to be – thoughtful, appropriately self-deprecating, smiling, kind. It was Christmas morning.
The homily made me ache for Moira, who was at home with my mother (the family splits into the Midnight Mass crowd and the morning church folk – this was the first time in a long while that I had to be in bed by 9:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve). The bishop spoke of how all families change for the better with the addition of a little baby. He assured the half-full church that he knew we’d all be wondering what a celibate knew of such things, but he had an understanding of human nature and heavenly nature that made up for the fact that he was only and observer of earthly family dynamics.
And then came time for the Creed. My husband and I launched in, both muttering the words by rote. I wondered how they echoed in his agnostic heart as I wondered at how easy it was to say I accepted in one version of One God and One Lord when, in reality, I lived a very different theology, finding gods and goddesses all over.
I watched as the bishop as he dug inside his robes for a handkerchief. Without breaking from the prayer, this unselfconscious octogenarian wiped at his nose before the entire congregation. As I began to smile broadly at this perfect display of humanity in this midst of all that godly talk, I realized we were on the bit about Pilate and Christ’s suffering. The words were so automatic, the idea of crucifixion did not even register. I was half in the moment; my focus on the fleshy plane, not the pious one.
When I finally wiped the grin off my face, I looked around at the other pews. Earlier, I had been pitying the kids who had been torn from their toys and stuffed into new clothes to stand around listening to an old man, who no matter how endearing to the grownups, could never be more fascinating than Santa’s loot. One girl, about seven or eight, wearing a headband that kept slipping onto her forehead and a crinkly dress that left her nowhere to put her hands was fidgeting as the long prayer droned on. Her father, whose perfectly gelled hair and flawlessly pressed jacket could not make up for a severe, pock-marked face, looked down to her with a warning glance, his mouth still moving with the story of the religion. The look worked and she resumed staring at the carpet.
One prayer, two human stories out of hundreds that were acted out while those familiar words flowed forth. For all that it is easy to talk about the tyrannical dictates of the hierarchy and those endless rules and regulations that stifle the spirit, there are always the stories that you come in with, the humanity that you can hold dear even when you are acting according to the script of the mass.
I still stood on the outside looking in, but it was important somehow to take in not just the religious theater, but the movement of all the extras as well.