Christmas Eve (Part II: A Tale of Two Churches Redux)

I don’t write about religion or faith all that often. I write about specific things encountered in various churches, and of people associated with them, but I’m hesitant to share my own beliefs here for various reasons. I should preface this huge block of text with the following: It’s a ramble. It’s not well thought out. It’s a collection of thoughts that are bubbling out, and that are valid for me RIGHT NOW, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be equally valid for me next year or even next week.

First, I admit that I am not the best informed when it comes to such thing. My family roots are Italian and Catholic, but my mother had left Catholicism behind by the time I was born, and while I vaguely recall being taken to Easter or Christmas services, and a couple of funerals, when I was a small child, we never did much with church or religion. My mother, instead, taught me by example, to fight for causes I thought were just, to make my own decisions about what I believed. In a way, I grew up without religion, and while this means there are certain cultural references that are not part of my being, it also means that there isn’t any particular dogma that is the be-all and end-all of faith to me. We attended the UU Church in Modesto when my mother and stepfather were first married. I thought the services were interesting, mostly, but resented anything that was a requirement, and had little use for what passed for a religious education program. At twelve, I was so accustomed to being the only child in any gathering, that to be sent to the same class as children significantly younger than I was annoyed me. As well, I wasn’t being taught anything about the history of Unitarian-Universalism, the roots or the meaning of the faith. Was I surrounded by an amazing group of people? Yes. Did they have a clue how to present things to precocious children? No.

Second, my opinions and beliefs are not static, and I’m still learning. I think we’re all still learning. There are elements of Unitarian-Universalism that I love, and elements of Episcopalian/Anglican culture that I love equally. I like the music of the Catholic mass, but have little patience for the politics of that faith. I have a problem with inclusive language, not because I don’t want it to be inclusive – I DO – but because the beauty of poetry, the cadence of phrases, the alliteration, meter, and tone of some really beautiful writing is diminished by trying to make it fit modern sensibilities. I have no issue with writing new pieces using modern language, and inclusive terminology, but the poetic part of my soul, the artistic part of my being, is sometimes offended by the butchery committed on hymns and psalms.

On Christmas Eve, we (Fuzzy and I), participated in two vastly different celebrations of the season. One was the Unitarian-Universalist Christmas Eve service at UUCOC, which was satisfying socially, spiritually, culturally, and artistically, even if I did stumble over the funky words to familiar carols; the other was midnight mass at the local convent. You can’t get much more diametrically opposed than those two experiences.

The UU service involved choral singing, in which people thoroughly enjoyed (or gave the appearance of it) the music. There were readings that reflected personal views on faith and morality (though morality isn’t really the right word – ethics, maybe?), some original, some literary. The homily (in two parts) was both personal and provocative (in the dictionary definition: to cause thought, not in the modern definition: racy and risque). There was a burning bowl, in which we had the opportunity to cast off something negative and ask the universe for something positive, without having to reveal those intimacies to other people. There was gingerbread and wassail for communion – communion of the truest form, rooted in community, in friendship, in joy. There was casual conversation, and no one glowered over offerings of Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays or any other Seasonal Greeting du Jour, instead taking everything in the spirit it was offered.

The mass, on the other hand, left me with a feeling of discord. It wasn’t that the service wasn’t lovely – in it’s way, it was. The service we attended was at a local monastery, a home for discalced Carmelite nuns. The sanctuary was built of brick and pink quartzite stone, and felt bright and airy, even at 11:30 at night. The voices of the Sisters, singing carols from behind their grille, were beautiful even though they were terribly pitchy. There’s something about simple song, sung with love, that makes even the worst voice lovely. The greens were modest, but managed to convey reverence for life, and for the season…but…

– But the service used modern forms of language, and I really like the King James Bible. I like that it uses the word forms shared by Shakespeare. I love the poetry of the antique constructs.
– But it was a solemn Eucharist, and I’m accustomed to joyous ones, even at midnight. I wanted the incense, the scent of actual frankincense and myrrh, the bells and pageantry, because the Mystery of High Mass is built for Story, and Drama. Without those trappings, the ritual loses some of its appeal for me.
– But the congregation didn’t sing, either because they were afraid, or because they were too serious, and worship without song feels wrong to me, no matter who or what one is worshiping.
– It is, evidently, possible to make “Joy to the World” into a dirge. A solemn take on what is generally an ebullient song left me feeling incomplete and unsettled.

(On a purely administrative note: I’m spoiled by the tradition that is shared by many UU congregations and Episcopalian congregations alike, of providing a complete order of service that guides you through everything from start to finish, rather than a missal that is divided by date, with the unchanging parts of a service separate from the parts that are time-sensitive. Newcomers and visitors – including myself – are easily confused by the flipping back and forth).

Am I sorry I went to the convent? No. I enjoyed the experience, and the glimpse of cloistered life, and I got to spend part of Christmas Eve with a woman who has become a dear friend. But next year, I’m definitely going to do midnight services with the Episcopalians, instead. If we do it at all. I may not need it – as I said, the UU celebration was satisfying on almost every level.

The thing is – I like the Eucharistic communion as well. I don’t have a problem with viewing God as a trinity or a single entity. (I prefer holy “ghost” to holy “spirit” but that’s another entry entirely). I pick and choose the elements of various religions that appeal to me, and I choose to interpret this is my body/this is my blood as “partake in that which is the essence of life, and the building blocks of humanity, and be in communion with the people and beings who share your existence.” Midnight mass, for me, isn’t so much worshiping Christ as it is a celebration of all Creation. We begin in darkness, we end in darkness, and if we’re very lucky, we get to experience the light during our journey from one to the other.

(As an aside, the King James version of those lines, with the “Take, eat,” cadence reminds me very strongly of Bubbie, and the literary part of my soul finds delight in the strong Jewish voice behind those Christian words.)