You’re home for the holidays, and it’s Christmas Eve. The stockings are hung by the chimney with care, but before you dive into the eggnog and start exchanging gifts, everyone hops into the minivan and heads off to church.
If it’s been a while since you’ve been to church, you might be feeling nervous about fitting in. Or maybe you’re just tagging along because it’s just one of those family traditions. In either case, you’re not alone. Any pastor will tell you that the Masses around Christmas bring in lots of newcomers — family, friends, even folks off the street who want to be touched by something deeper than the sparkling lights at the mall. Part of that “something deeper” is the very fact that we’re all coming together.
If you’ve been to Mass before, you know that it’s no laser light show. It doesn’t have to be a chore, though — behind the stuffy music and starchy clothes, there’s something real going on. How else can you explain the people who return week after week?
As you shuffle past all the poinsettias and nativity displays into your pew, here are three things that might help you unlock what’s going on and maybe discover something new.
We’re all sinners
There’s a particular way you feel when you sit down in a classroom for the first class of the semester. Your notebooks are new, the folders in your laptop are empty, and all the faces look unfamiliar. You feel slightly out of place — like everyone else in the room has some kind of edge in this endeavor. They all know what they are supposed to be doing, you think — I’m already behind.
Then, after the first week, you realize that no one knows what they’re doing — that’s why they’re in class. And the personalities of the people start to emerge — there’s the guy who is always talking to the teacher before class, there’s the girl who snaps her gum, there’s the dude who has one earphone in all the time. And you have a spot there, too, because you’re there to learn.
It’s the same at Mass. Don’t look around and assume that everyone is there because they’re holy and you’re not. The only reason we’re all there is because we realize we’re not holy and we need help. No one has it figured out. You’re not behind or out of place. No matter how people react to you, know that you belong there. And if you keep coming, you’ll see personalities start to emerge. More and more, you’ll find that you have a spot there, too (just don’t take someone’s pew!).
It’s not about you (no offense)
I often sit in front of an elderly couple when I go to church. The man might be wearing first-generation hearing aids — it looks like he has orthopedic shoes behind his ears. They squeal with ultrasonic feedback when the priest’s microphone is turned on. Dogs start howling outside the church. When the hearing aids start to squawk, his wife jabs him in the ribs so he turns them down. Then, when he is falling asleep during the homily because he can’t hear anything, she jabs him in the ribs to wake him up.
Whenever we’re in a public space with a group of people, we’re almost always there to be entertained — like at a movie theater or sporting event. If I take that same expectation to church, though, this couple is gonna get on my nerves real fast — just like the restless toddler doing parkour in the pew ahead of me.
But Mass isn’t intended to entertain us. It’s not even, necessarily, intended to make us feel good (though it’s nice that it does sometimes). The purpose of Mass is to bring us into communion with one another and with God, which is a reality much deeper than emotion.
Catholics participate at Mass as a way to do something together with people. When you look at it that way, the more the merrier — and the more different we all are, the better we express unity.
It’s about change
Here’s what Mass is for: it’s geared to effect change — that’s the whole point.
Catholics are at Mass because bread and wine are changed into Jesus’ body and blood, which feeds us. But that’s not all. We’re changed, too, and in no less a dramatic fashion. No one goes to church who isn’t interested in changing their lives and becoming a better person — the person God created us to be.
The thing about this kind of change is that it takes a long time. It happens incrementally. That’s a tough pill to swallow in this day and age when a click can have anything delivered to our doorsteps, but it’s how anything meaningful comes about in our lives. We can’t build deep friendships overnight. Adopting a diet and exercise routine will change our bodies, but it takes weeks. Discovering our vocation and developing a career takes years.
This is the kind of change that happens at Mass. The whole point is that we do it repeatedly, over and over. Don’t expect to have a life conversion at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (it might be a good place to start, though!). Those who make Mass a weekly habit are seeking degrees of change that, over time, allow us to better recognize and respond to God’s grace.
The writer Flannery O’Connor once said, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” God wants to make us into something new, but that’s not an invitation that’s easy to accept. Going to Mass (even better, regularly) puts us in the way of God’s grace, where we can’t avoid it.
Just remember: the change isn’t all pain — the whole point of our faith is that there’s something new on the other side of the cross.
Catholics have a lot of traditions, and they all come together at Mass — from signing ourselves with holy water to the sit-stand-kneel workout routine and the long, long recitations everyone seems to know by heart. All of that might be rusty for you, but that’s okay — just follow along the best you can. The ushers won’t yank you out of the pew for saying the wrong thing.
You can trust that everyone around you is glad you’re there, whether or not you put anything in the collection basket. We’re all there to be part of a people walking toward God’s table together. And that body is not the same without you.