Once people walked en masse to Mass. Or sometimes cycled. Getting there meant companionship on the road but it also meant starting in good time as the weather, for one thing, could cause unexpected delays. Now with most people coming to Mass in cars, everyone more or less arrives just minutes before it starts. The decline in weekend attendance means that worshippers can arrive a few minutes early and still be assured of their favourite seat – apart from at the back as Irish congregations usually fill churches from the bottom up.
But, on Christmas night, late arrivals can cause mayhem. It’s not unusual now for the church pews to be full before any of the locals arrive. Now on Christmas nights there’s such an influx of visitors that the usual patrons sometimes can’t get into the church, let alone occupy their favourite seats.
While there’s general agreement that it’s encouraging to see big crowds flocking to Christmas Masses, that positive and optimistic approach is sometimes tempered by dark thoughts about those who turn out for ‘their annual visit to the church’, or are seen as ‘turning the church into a fashion parade for Christmas outfits’ and there can even be dark mutterings about ‘who’s paying for the heat, anyway?’ You know yourself.
But the truth is that the phenomenon of people drifting towards a church on Christmas night is much more than an annual deferral to things religious. It’s the result of a tide turning inside us, something that brings us to a place within ourselves that seeks, even demands our attention. We can try to fill that space inside us with everything that money can buy or that fame can provide or that others may envy but on Christmas night something more fundamental seeks our attention.
No matter how much we like to criticise the Catholic Church or disparage organised religion or dismiss any kind of religious belief, there is within us an itch for the spiritual that periodically seeks some kind of resolution and that beckons us to the Crib on Christmas night. It isn’t just a mere deferral to the faith of our fathers (or, more probably, mothers) or a voyage back into childhood or a tribute to the resilience of the Christmas story. It’s about the clay of our being shifting so as to let us discover again a spiritual hunger within ourselves.
Most of the time most of us are too busy to give that space our attention. We convince ourselves that money, prestige, success and all the other goodies the world dangles before us will sate the deepest hungers of our hearts.
My own guess is that our refusal to take the tide that Christmas offers is not unconnected with that mood of sadness that often descends at Christmas. It’s not just that some people can’t enter into the cheery atmosphere. Or that Christmas seems to exacerbate the sadness of the varied tragedies of life. It’s to do with that distinctive air of Christmas melancholy that somehow tends to creep up on us at the most unlikely times. At Christmas dinner or at midnight Mass or having a celebratory drink with friends and we can somehow find ourselves overcome with a strange sadness.
There’s something about this time of year that sharpens the sense of sadness that seems part and parcel of the bitter-sweet experience of Christmas time: waiting for loved ones to come home from far away or coping with the knowledge that they won’t make it home this year; the joy of a close relationship and the happiness it generates or the knowledge that the love has somehow died and only the silence remains; the glint of expectation in the eyes of young children and the knowledge that what they expect is either beyond what the family budget can stand or what Christmas could bear; the wonder of a new born baby snugly ensconced in the home; or the difficult truth that, as everyone else is having a great Christmas, this year the dominant memory will be of a loved one no longer there.
There’s something about the Christmas spirit that seems to underline, even presume an expectation of happiness. This is the one time of the year when people sense that they deserve to be happy and when they’re not, the loss is felt all the sharper.
Maybe we expect too much. The reality is of course that we will be as happy at Christmas as we are at any other time of year. The only difference is that at Christmas we are more aware of how happy or unhappy we are. You could call it ‘the Christmas night feeling’. And there is nothing quite like it.
It’s a kind of annual stock-taking that we seem compelled to make as the hours are counted down to Christmas midnight. It’s an examination of where we are and how it’s going, a night when the eyes can fill with tears as the memories flood in and the expectations of other years seem to have come if not to nought at least to less than was expected. Christmas night is a kind of clearance in which we find ourselves, sufficiently distant and alone to see the wood from the trees of our lives.
That’s why so many who never come near the church for the rest of the year somehow find themselves drifting towards the Church on Christmas night for an annual visit. It’s a paying of dues, a naming of what’s important, a listing of what matters when the chips are down and the effect of the drink wears off. Christmas is almost an annual clearing-house when the great sieve of life gets a good shake and we look around us to see what we have still going for us.
Cherish that space this Christmas time.