9:00 pm 24 December 1989
I am sixteen. It is my last year of high school. I am dressed in my Christmas best. Velvet. Or perhaps black and silver satin. I fix my hair—asymmetrical, in accordance with the year.
We pull into the driveway of Our Lady of Victory Roman Catholic Parish. Between snowbanks, the sidewalk is lined with luminaria. I think of the people who filled the bags with sand, placed them carefully in line, set the candles and lit them. I am full of anticipation, expectation, eagerness.
We meet the rest of the choir members in the OLV (Our Lady of Victory) school building. Warming up, I look around to see everyone else, dressed, ready, pleased to be preparing for Midnight Mass.
We have climbed the snowy incline to the church. We have changed our shoes and put on our robes, green with gold stoles for the holiday.
For forty-five minutes, the Sanctuary Choir sings as people come into the worship space. We have climbed the white marble steps in our green robes and turned, all eyes on our director.
As we sing, believer after believer comes to the end of a pew, genuflects, crosses themselves, and slides into place. The gold tabernacle, the huge crucifix, the gold-and-marble altar—all these things are as they always are. The fixtures of worship throughout my childhood.
And there is more. The Nativity scene before the altar. The Jesse Tree—a Christmas tree covered with lights and bows and ornaments depicting the genealogy of Jesus—stood in one corner. And when the procession began, we would see the beautifully embroidered gold-and-white vestments of the priests.
Each year, our music focused around a particular region or country. We did English carols, French, Spanish, Slavic…and we rehearsed for months to bring our ministry—not performance, our director always reminded us—to the Liturgy of the Solemnity of the Nativity of Jesus.
The bells of Christendom ring out the birth of the Savior.
The church is darkened. We went to the back, behind the rows and rows and rows of pews where hundreds of people now sat.
We pick up our bells, those of us who are in the handbell choir.
The great, low bell begins to peal. Twelve times for the hour of the day of Jesus’ birth.
I imagine Mary in the stable, laboring. I look up at the great crucifix and down at the Nativity scene. I think of Our Lady of Perpetual Help—She who knows the fate of Her Son. My mind spins as the incense begins to billow. I become inseparable from what is happening, from the liturgy unfolding.
And then the organ swells, the opening hymn begins, and the procession steps off. All of us behind the cross, carried by one of the choir members. The rest of us, two by two, bowing as we reached the front of the sanctuary. Choir members first, then the choir director, altar servers bearing candles and incense, priests, and the main celebrant priest.
Kyrie eleison. Sanctus. Credo. Agnus Dei. The parts of the Mass. Just like a Sunday, but exalted by the Solemnity, the glory and delight of Christmas.
Knowing I would sing at two more Masses in the morning, I climbed into bed, still glowing.
I realize there is so much more I could write, just about one year’s expression of the Christmas Eve Midnight Liturgy. So much more.
I could write about how I was cast out from my friends and fellow choristers when I revealed I was lesbian.
I could write about the to-me horrific politics of that parish, and how they have gotten worse and worse over the years.
There is pain to write about, sure.
Beauty and Reverence
But that’s not what strikes me now. What strikes me as I think about Midnight Mass, and Advent, and Lent, and Easter, and Pentecost…what strikes me is the way reverence was expressed through beauty and care. And, of course, that these liturgies are where I learned what it is to have “good worship” or “powerful, transformative ritual.”
A chorister carried the Cross in our procession. Young men burned the incense. Women embroidered the vestments. Families put out the luminaria. We—many of us, at least—felt the welcome weight of our parts, our responsibilities. I know that I felt keenly that every note I sang was for the glory of God…by which I meant my singing was ministry. My music was not for me, not only for pleasure, but for exaltation.
Nowadays, the religious worlds in which I move, the Unitarian Universalist and the Wiccan world, leave me with questions. When do we create our spaces for the exaltation of something wonderful, something glorious, some Ultimate Beauty? Do we even know what is wonderful, glorious, or beautiful?
I have no desire to return to Roman Catholicism, or even to Christianity. That said, I ask, as I do over and over again, what might I—we, my co-religionists—learn from the reverence expressed in beauty and care?
What might we learn?