Usually our Christmas family gatherings are a busy, noisy times, with the house full of people – adults,teens, small children and a dog. On Christmas Eve, we most often attend our own church, Bethel Christian Reformed Church, for Christmas observance. But every so often, when our daughter, her husband and family travel to North Dakota for the holiday, we have a quiet Christmas with only adults at the house, and we visit a different church to share in their Christmas celebration.
It was on one of these quiet Christmases that my husband, son and I decided to attend the Christmas Eve Service, often called “Midnight Mass” because of the late hour in which it is held, at St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. St John’s Church and Abbey is a 60 mile drive from our home, so I checked on-line to make certain of the time of the service -we wanted to arrive in plenty of time to find a seat. Reading through the information I saw that there was to be a concert in the church prior to the celebration of the Eucharist. “Wow!”, I thought, “What a great a Christmas gift. We’ll get to hear the amazing church organ, the St John’s boys’ choir and the Abbey choir perform sacred music before mass, plus the music during the service.” Energized by this news, I packed up a little basket of Christmas cookies and a thermos of coffee, grabbed our travel mugs, and herded the guys out to the car for the trip Collegeville.
It was a beautiful, clear,cold night. The moon was round and bright, and cast enough light on the snow-covered ground that we could easily see across miles of rolling farm fields as we travelled. When we got to the church, the parking lot was close to full even with an hour to go before the service started. It was wonderful to walk up the steps, open the huge doors of the church and see and smell the lovely pine boughs throughout the worship space.We were fortunate to find a place to sit close to the back of the church. I was a little disappointed that we were so far away from the front, but grateful that we arrived in time to find a seat and hear the pre-service concert. I noticed that a young couple with little kids was seated behind us in the very last pew. I groaned inwardly, wondering why parents would bring such young children to church so late at night, and hoped that the kids wouldn’t get tired, cranky and loud during the service. As I looked toward the front of the church, toward the altar, I was struck again by the simple, profound beauty of St John’s church with its Marcel Breuer design, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcel_Breuer, and pondered the contrast between the modern architecture and the ancient celebration of Christmas. There was certainly an undercurrent of happiness filling the gracious space. The entire setting, the musicians and the people attending all seemed to be filled with excitement.
When the concert ended, all the electrical lights were put out and only candles lit the perimeter of the huge sanctuary.Then a choir of monks began singing the Introit, or introduction, to the mass, which was a Gregorian chant. At the end of this chant, the lights came up in the church and the congregation sang “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” The celebration of the mass included readings from the familiar Bible story of Christ’s humble birth. It was after one of the scripture readings that I heard the cry of the baby from the family behind us; it was definitely a newborn cry, piercing and demanding, but instead of reacting negatively to the plaintive tone, which I was fully prepared to do earlier in the evening, a small miracle occurred: I realized what a meaningful experience it was to hear the same sounds at church on Christmas Eve in the 21st century that Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the angels heard on that first Christmas night; not the sounds of a full-throated organ,or Gregorian chant, but the cry of a healthy newborn baby.
The remainder of the service was truly moving. I was so very glad that we decided to drive the two hours to participate in Christmas Eve at St John’s. Yet as beautiful as it was, the moment I remember most tenderly is the cry of the newborn whose young family was seated behind us. No other part of the service touched my heart more, or brought the Christmas story more clearly into focus than the sound of that baby’s tiny wail. The very noise that I had dreaded to hear during the service had become the source of my deepest happiness that night, and I remember it as a lovely Christmas Eve gift.