I shall set the scene:
Every year on Christmas Eve our family gathers with two other families who have children the same ages as ours – they grew up together – and we exchange gifts and eat filet mignon and seared tuna, and enjoy ourselves altogether too much. In vino veritas!
Most Christmas mornings I fall out of bed and drive two towns over to Mass, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone during the kiss of peace, and later my wife and sons and I drive up to my sister-in-law’s place in Connecticut to open family presents.
But this year I decided to go to the nearest church – not the one to which I belong – to attend the 5:00 Vigil Mass, the better to make my life a little easier on Christmas Day.
I made this decision with some trepidation, however. I consider this neighborhood church notorious for its liturgical laxity, which is why I rarely go there, despite the fact that it’s three hundred yards from my front door.
“In April, 1966,” the church’s website informs us, “construction of the new church with seating for 850 began, guided by the norms of the Second Vatican Council.” I admit I don’t know if this refers to architectural norms or just to the novus ordo, but I’ve attended several Masses there and always come away slightly stunned.
But it was Christmas Eve, and I figured: How bad can it be? Here’s how bad:
To begin with, there were easily a thousand folks crammed into the church: not only was it standing-room-only inside the sanctuary, the vestibule was three or four rows deep with parishioners, and there were plenty of people outside on the church steps too, although a bunch of them were smokers.
Now, as it was later explained to me, this Christmas Eve Mass is considered a children’s service, which may explain the thinking behind what I’m about to describe, although it does not justify it. The lectors were all kids in their early teens, and the choir was composed of a half dozen pre-teen kids, who spent a lot of time waving to grandparents, who were not shy about taking cellphone photos of the little ones and immediately posting them to Facebook.
The celebrant gave an impromptu greeting before the sign of the cross that elsewhere would have qualified as a full-length homily, and he joked about the size of the crowd (which, fire laws notwithstanding, was impressive ), and said it was gratifying to see so many familiar faces and so many guests, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, blah-blah and blah.
The priest made short work of the Penitential Act, and then came the lectors and the actual homily, and that’s where it got just a little bit weird.
He wanted, he said, to talk about the spirit of Christmas. And when we speak of that spirit, he explained, we’re really speaking about the Holy Spirit, but in the midst of holiday cheer, gift buying, and the commercialization of the holiday, we may lose sight of who the Spirit really is.
I’m thinking, Well, I do wish this church had a pulpit and the priest, with his wireless mic, wouldn’t pace about like a Veg-o-Matic salesman, but so far the homily makes sense . . .
But then he said:
“And I can illustrate this best by bringing out some guests who are here with us tonight. Hold on a moment while I go get them.”
He walked around to the back of the oval chancel, took hold of something, and then came around to the front of the altar. He was dragging three inflatable plastic snowmen: mother, father, and child.
“These are the Winters,” he said.
Now he had some sort of control device that allowed him to inflate and deflate the “Winter” family, thus to illustrate the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the . . . well, I’m not sure what: the leakage of the Spirit? And the congregants laughed and applauded as he pumped up the snowmen and then collapsed them and pumped them up again . . .
At the party later on, our hostess, who was at the Mass, said she thought the priest was just doing his best to reach the kiddies. No doubt that’s true, but I pointed out that the Mass isn’t a skit with schtick, and kids will never be proper Catholics if they conflate plastic snowmen with real saints.
Perhaps it’s because I’d had lunch the week before with The Catholic Thing contributor and my dear friend, Karen Walter Goodwin, who was a partner in bringing Les Misérables, the musical, to the English-speaking world and because one of the young women at our gathering, a classmate of my older son, had performed in the high-school production of Les Mis, but I was feeling very much like Inspector Javert, thinking I ought to make the equivalent of a citizen’s arrest of the priest and drag him (and his inflatable pals) before whatever passes for the Inquisition in the Archdiocese of New York.
Instead, I had another shot of Birkir Snaps, a 100-proof liquor brought back from Iceland by one of our number as a gift for yours truly.
I proposed a toast:
“Peace on earth and goodwill towards snowmen.”