This time last year I was getting ready to meet the Pope.
Ok, not technically “meet,” more like “watch him walk by.”
After several months of waiting and string pulling (by my father-in-law who is a Benedictine monk), my wife and I found out we had tickets to the Midnight Mass at the Vatican on Christmas Eve.
We were excited about going to Italy, regardless. It had been a lifelong dream. But spending Christmas Eve in the Vatican was icing on the cake.
As it turns out, you’ve got to wait several hours, on your feet standing, sometimes in the rain, to enjoy that cake.
If you ever have the chance to attend the Midnight, or Christmas Eve, Mass at the Vatican, know this – you need to get there at least 4 hours early if you want to get a good seat, meaning a seat where you can see the Pope and be close to all the action. After those 4 hours of waiting outside, you’ve got 2 more hours of waiting inside before the service begins.
But it’s worth it.
It was a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life. And not just because I got to see this guy.
What really made the night memorable was a song.
It was sung in Italian by a boy’s choir.
The tune sounded really familiar, but not speaking much Italian it took me a minute or so to figure out what song it was.
I think just about everybody else in St. Peter’s, who didn’t speak Italian, was having the same experience because at right about the same moment something incredible happened, something I will never forget for as long as I live.
You see, Midnight Mass is a very structured event. Everyone has a part to play. The Pope leads the mass. The priests, archbishops, cardinals, etc. assist him. The choir sings the selected music. And, except for a handful of moments, the congregation sits back and watches the drama unfold.
In other words, when the congregation wasn’t specifically asked to read a response aloud, they were expected to be quite.
This wasn’t a big deal for most of in the congregation, as an untold number of the world’s nations were represented in St. Peter’s that night. Which meant few of us knew Italian or Latin well enough to participate anyway.
Such was the case when the boy’s choir began to sing.
But something was different this time.
The tune was familiar to almost everyone in the basilica and, for whatever reason, call it the Christmas spirit or the moving of the Spirit, a slow, melodic murmur began to build as people began to recognize the song.
As the boy’s choir sang in Italian, they were joined by a chorus of voices from the congregation who broke the bonds of propriety and began singing, each in their own language…
O come all ye faithful
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him
Born the King of angels.
O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him,
Christ, the Lord.
If ever I have experienced a moment when the kingdom of God had come to earth, it was this.
I felt very literally as if I as standing before the heavenly throne described by John in Revelation when he says,
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice…
Heaven had truly come to earth at least for one night.
This year I’m doing something much different, but I expect to witness the kingdom of God on earth just the same.
Fortunately, this time it won’t require a trip halfway around the world.
My wife has to work this Christmas. She’s in her first year as an OB/GYN resident, which means holidays are essentially on hold for the next 4 years. We will get to visit family for a few days during the holidays, but not for Christmas itself.
Since she’s working the night shift on Christmas Eve, I decided to take my church up on their request for people willing or able to serve dinner at a local homeless shelter. On the surface it seems like the furtherest thing from Midnight Mass at the Vatican. At St. Peter’s everyone was dressed in their Sunday best. At the shelter, keeping warm, not impressing others, will be the dress code for the evening.
There may be a few songs sung. I haven’t been before, so I don’t know. But I feel pretty confident in saying there definitely won’t be a Latin mass.
So, in a lot of ways my Christmas will be very different this year as compared to last.
But in the most important way, it will be very much the same.
This Christmas Eve, just like last, I expect to catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God.
This glimpse won’t come gilded in the gold of a high altar or adorned by the voice of a heavenly choir. This glimpse will be found in breaking bread with strangers. In sharing a conversation with people who spend most of their lives being ignored. And in serving those the world counts as the least of these.
It’s a different glimpse of life in the kingdom of God, but it is no less holy.
For me, this has become the thing I look forward to most at Christmas. The time off from work or school is great and I love the chance to go back home to see friends and family, but if Christmas is a time to celebrate the moment when the kingdom of God came down to earth in a stable in Bethlehem, then it is that holy collision that I want to experience more than anything else because every time I do it leaves me forever changed.
So, this Christmas it is my hope and prayer that you too have the chance to glimpse the kingdom of God for yourself. It may come in the form of a beautiful service at your church, in donating your time to a local charity, or in a moment you least expect.
But whenever and wherever it comes I hope you recognize it and embrace it for what it is – a holy gift from heaven that has within it the power to change the way you look at world in dramatic and lasting ways.
If you let it.
Grace and peace,