One of my first jobs after graduation was as liturgy director at a big suburban parish. The music program, quite frankly, was a shambles when I arrived. We put together a choir for Christmas as best we could. And we did some nice things with environment — candles in the windows, that sort of thing. None of this was what I would call perfect or even all that special on a grand scale, but we had done our best with the tools at hand.
The week after Christmas, I went to the local diner. The waitress recognized me as the person who directed the choir at the Christmas eve Mass she had attended, and exclaimed the fact. “Uh-oh,” I thought, not knowing what to expect. But, far from putting me on the spot, she couldn’t stop praising the Christmas Mass. “It was so beautiful — the candles, the choir, everything!”
“My husband didn’t want to go, but I talked him into it,” she confided, “and even he said it was beautiful.” Then she went on to say something that has stuck with me for many years: “I worked so hard to be there… It meant so much to me.”
“I worked so hard to be there.”
Truth to tell, she was the one who was beautiful — her sincerity, her frankness. And, without knowing it, she put a new frame for me around what we liturgists and musicians do at Christmas. It is easy to take for granted the crowds that come. Maybe many of them we do not see at other times of the year, and thus we underestimate them. We don’t ever see the hidden things that brought them there, or what “being there” might have meant for them personally. “I worked so hard to be there” became for me a token of all the efforts ordinary people make in order to make it to church that day, perhaps especially if they are trying to persuade reluctant family members to come.
Something is going on, of which we may see only occasional glimpses. This may be something that they themselves have never quite put into words. As Susan Roll recently observed:
Christians drape lights on the trees, bake the cookies, attend the children’s pageants and flock to Midnight Mass even when we might not have thought of church all year. Our hopes, perhaps our hope against hope, lie under the surface of our seasonal customs and pervade our dogged resolution to honor the mysteries we cannot explain.
Liturgists and musicians do a lot of work to make our Christmas celebrations beautiful. Yet other people are working at it too, and their efforts make it beautiful, in concert with ours.