MIDNIGHT MASS MADNESS
On Christmas Eve, my family and I always attend services at our church, Calvary Episcopal in Downtown Memphis. I am a Baptist in residence at Calvary. I love the Episcopal liturgy, but sometimes I do wish the choir would sing "Just As I Am" as we walk down the aisle to take Communion. You can take the boy out of the Baptist Church, but you can’t take the Baptist Church out of the boy.
Our church holds two services on Christmas Eve. The first is the "family service," and it is held at 5:30 p.m. That’s the service we attended when our children were little.
The other service starts at 10:30 p.m., and is known as "Midnight Mass." I think it’s called that because you don’t get out of the church until midnight.
Midnight Mass is a beautiful service. The music is magnificent, and the preacher usually brings his best game to the Midnight Mass sermon. As an old Baptist PK (preacher’s kid), I’m always pulling for the preacher to hit a home run in the Midnight Mass sermon. It’s one of the two times of the year (the other being Easter Sunday) when the church is absolutely packed, and I’m sure the preacher wants to make a good impression in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, the folks who are there on Christmas Eve might actually come back to the church before Easter.
Midnight Mass is standing room only at our church, as it is at most churches in America on Christmas Eve. The ushers have to bring out folding chairs to accommodate all of the Easter-Christmas Christians who are making their bi-annual church appearance. But even then, if you arrive late to Midnight Mass after an evening of last-minute Christmas shopping, you are probably going to have to stand at the back of the church. That can be tough at an Episcopal service which can last well over an hour, given the fact that everybody present gets a drink.
There are also a surprising number of children present for Midnight Mass, even though the service is held well past their bedtime, and the kids are anxious to get home and try to get to sleep, given the fact that as all children know, Santa won’t come visit you on Christmas Eve until you’re asleep.
Consequently, the children are restless and have trouble remaining in the pews. And when you get to that part of the service where the minister invites everyone in the congregation to "pass the peace," … well, all Heaven breaks loose. Kids bolt from the pews, run down the aisles, and sometimes the National Guard has to be brought in to restore order.
It often truly becomes Midnight Mass Madness, but as a Baptist-Episcopalian, I have a confession to make. I love it.
I love not only the liturgy and the music and the preacher’s A-Game sermon, but I also love the crowds and the commotion and the clang of the folding chairs and the shear spiritual zaniness of the entire event.
While I’m not a preacher and have never played one on the Christian Broadcasting Network, I believe that in a curious way, Midnight Mass brings the Christmas Story to life.
For Christians, Christmas is the story of God coming into the world as one of us. Jesus didn’t sweep down to earth from Heaven in a fiery chariot and replace Augustus as Roman Emperor. No, He came into the world a baby, born in such poverty that He was literally birthed in a barn.
He spent his life living and working and sometimes fishing with sinners and the powerless and the marginalized folk of his society. He didn’t spend a lot of time with religious folks; He didn’t seem particularly comfortable with them. I frankly think Jesus was more comfortable with the Easter-Christmas folk of his day.
And sometimes, when I’m at Midnight Mass, it occurs to me that Jesus would feel right at home with the crowd, the noise, the restless kids, and just the wonderful humanity of the whole event.
And it is in those moments that I pause, albeit too briefly, from the secular craziness of the holiday season and really get the message that what we ought to be celebrating is God coming into the world to live with us, love us, forgive us, and teach us how we should love and forgive each other.