Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Midnight Clear

For today's posting, I thought it would be fitting to describe a very special midnight Christmas Mass I attended two years ago, shortly before my conversion.

Until I was about 10, I had attended a Catholic parish with my family, attended CCD classes, even had experienced my first Communion and first Confession.  When my father started attending a different church, my family attended fewer Masses until we stopped going altogether.  It was a completely different type of service, as it had a very Evangelical (and I daresay a very anti-Catholic) tradition.  My 10-year-old brain at the time could not comprehend the difference in theology, and all I knew was that a charismatic service trumped a solemn one.  The teaching at my father’s church became my new religion. 
Fast forward to adulthood: about 3 years after we had married, my husband Greg converted to Catholicism, which to me was the worst denomination any true Bible-believer could be a part of.  I was stuck in a dark place, overcome with confusion, anger, and growing resentment towards my husband and his faith.  For at least a year we tried to awkwardly avoid confrontation, but I sought opportunities to fire all my misinformed theological gunfire in an attempt to catch Greg in a trap.  I mistakenly believed that if Greg had rejected aspects of my faith, which is a significant aspect of my identity, he was ultimately rejecting me.  Consequently I had little respect or patience for his newfound faith, and I found myself constantly on the defensive.
But with God all things are possible, even the softening of a Grinch-y heart like mine. 
Two years ago, as we had done in years past, we drove to my parents’ home to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.  The route to snowy New Hampshire passed through quaint New England towns, antique homes adorned with Christmas wreaths, garlands, and white lights.  Greg was visibly uneasy.  He slowed down considerably as we passed through each town, eyeing each church.  I know what he was doing, but neither one of us said anything.  He was looking for a Christmas Eve vigil Mass that he could attend, and thus minimize an awkward interruption of our Christmas morning (and considering my dad’s harsh view of the Catholic Church, this was a sensitive move on Greg’s part).  Each church we passed had a Mass that either started much later than our trip allowed, or had already happened.  I was growing impatient to get to my parents’ home.  And yet, in some sort of Christmas miracle, I sympathized.  I realized that he was trying to discreetly find a Mass and celebrate one of the most important days of his faith without offending my (albeit rather ridiculous) belief system.  As he was having no luck finding a Mass on our way, he said he would go to a midnight Mass in my parents’ town after everyone had gone to bed.
Christmas Eve with my family was cozy and festive.  The fire roared in the fireplace.  My mother’s decorations and my father’s cooking created an inviting atmosphere and a pleasant yuletide aroma.  We ate until we were stuffed, watched some football, and started dozing off while watching a cheesy TV special.  Slowly we each retired to bed.  Greg and I were the last ones watching the TV.  I started to feel bad that Greg would have to wait by himself for another 2 hours until it was time for Mass, and I also started to worry that he would get lost either to or from the church.  I offered to stay awake and go with him. 
At 11:30 we bundled up and snuck out.  It was a cold and clear December night.  Millions of stars sparkled bright and their reflection glistened on the crusty frozen snow.  All was still on the way into town of Jaffrey.  An ice-covered swamp bordered by tall, snow covered pine trees dazzled under the moon’s light.  We didn’t see one car until we approached the church.  The light from inside the building poured out onto the street and revealed a long line of cars parked at the curb.  Families walked close together to stay warm, and greeted others with a strong handshake as they entered.
We were able to find a seat, but there were few remaining.  An usher wearing Carhartt pants, work boots, and a flannel shirt led us up to a pew.  I gulped; it was the second pew from the front.  As much as I had boldly argued the pitfalls of Catholicism with Greg at home, walking up that aisle made me feel meek and timid.  The family already sitting in the pew squished together to make room for us, and greeted us with warm smiles and a kindhearted “Merry Christmas”.  Although they did not know me or my bitterness, their welcoming faces seemed to demonstrate forgiveness.
Each progression of the Mass weakened my presumptions of Catholic Masses as dull and empty; it intrigued me.  Parishioners sung loud, the homily was profound and fiery, and the sign of peace was heartfelt and full of hugs.  Most touching, however, was the serving of Communion.  People of all shapes and sizes, all manners of dress, all ages, and all states of health made their way up front.  The line seemed unending.  Such a genuine display of faith!  I was amazed to see that the priest seemed to know most of people he served, as he gave a knowing smile to young and old.  Not at one point did I feel excluded or unwelcome because I was not Catholic.  On the contrary, the strangers around me shared their joy that I could celebrate the birth of our Lord with them. 
Finally, as we sang the final hymn and we all filed out, a strange and amazing mini-miracle occurred.  I held Greg’s hand so as not to get separated in the crowd, and for the first time in many months I felt connected to my husband.  The months after his conversion had made me feel inferior and confused, but this night I felt united with him.  We continued to hold hands as we walked our way to the car.  The cold air was abrupt yet refreshing, and the clarity of the stars reminded me of the simplicity of the night’s celebration:  on such a starry night the brilliance of the angels flooded the vast shepherd’s fields, and lit the manger where the Holy Family made their shelter.  No theological rants, no complicated relationships, just pure love and adoration.  The midnight clear drove out the darkness that had cloaked my soul for too long. 
The softening of my heart was irreversible at this point.  The moment was too romantic, the stars were too bright, the night was too clear to deny my newfound openness towards my husband’s faith. 
For the next couple weeks, I did my research.  I read books written by Catholic converts, looked up many informative sites on the internet, and found material that directly confronted my skepticism.  Three weeks after that Christmas Mass I sought out the chaplain at the school where I work, and he led me through my first Confession in about 20 years.  Later that morning I had my first Communion at our school’s daily Mass.  When I texted Greg about the monumental decision I had made, he sent me a message back saying he had been in Confession at the same time. 
And a few weeks after that we found out we were expecting.   (We wouldn’t find out I was having twins until several months later… that is, a few weeks after my Confirmation.)
There is a lot more to my conversion story than just that one Christmas night.  I know it was the result of many people praying, and most certainly by God’s mercy and grace.  Our Lord came to the world to bring peace, and that on that Christmas two years ago, He most certainly did: peace to a rocky marriage, peace to a wounded heart, and peace to a family united in Christ.