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.
Rita- what a beautiful – and truthful – reflection.
I think of the young parents who have spent the entire morning getting their young children cleaned, dressed and ready to appear at church, fearing greatly that children will mishbehave and the parents will incur the wrath (perceived or, all too often, real) of their fellow parishioners. Or the somewhat older parents who have ordered, begged and almost dragged their teens into the worship space.
Thank you for this reflection. It has helped to humble all of the planning and preparing I will be finishing these last few days before Christmas. I will take the image of that woman with me as I minister this week and next.
Somewhere on the interwebs I recently read someone complaining about clergy who thank people for coming to Mass, since, after all, “they are doing their duty and shouldn’t be thanked for doing so.”
I always thank people for coming when I’m shaking hands at the door at the end of Mass, especially if they are people I don’t recognize.
Thank you, Rita, for this reflection! It reminds me of a phone call I had earlier this week with tech support. I hate calling tech support for anything, except for this one company because I know they will be patient, kind, and competent. At the end of the call, I thanked them. And the tech said “Thanks for being the best part about [XX].” Really, the people who make up the assembly, especially those we see only a few times, are the best part of the liturgies.
The waitress recognized me as the person who directed the choir at the Christmas eve Mass she had attended…
Of all the stories told about unexpectedly wondrous encounters, the “hey, I know you!” kind is probably my very favorite.
Personally, it was that single utterance, “Hey, I know you!” said to me by this man whom I used to see every morning and who I later found out was a priest, that brought me back to the church, quite literally.
This is, as usual, beautiful, and beautifully written. Thanks for sharing, Rita.
Reading Justice Sotomayor’s memoir of growing up in the Bronx, she notes how her mother, alone of her clan, worked to send her children to parochial school, but received the disdain against working mothers, and also didn’t receive a visit from the pastor when in need because she didn’t go to Sunday Mass (but a Baptist pastor whom someone knew did visit her).
The server in the diner is miles and miles ahead of me with regard to discipleship. I envy her response to beauty. Frequently i have denigrated seasonal decoration as a lower than the spoken word, the Word, eucharistic prayer, benedicat vos. This is a very destructive view, as it separates me from my brothers and sisters through arrogance.
My exodus from the social toxicity of traditionalism has placed me in the other boiling pot of “progressivism” (mainstream modern Catholicism to most people). And yet, like Meribah, I quarrel loudly. Where is this parish’s puer natus? Show me the ressurexi! And no da perenne gaudium? Are we not utterly lost when the word-plays of the Latin are not sung?
Rita, your service as a liturgical professional is crucial. A skilled person like you must make sure that while not everyone will be fed at Mass according to their precise needs, all will be sustained. Thank you.
I hope to meet a spiritual mentor similar to the server some day.
Rita, Thank you for that. It’s way to easy for us who have everything our way to express disdain those for whom getting there is an uphill struggle. I’ll try to think about your waitress often.
Such a brilliant reflection. It’s so easy as a choir director, or member, sacristan, or other lay ministerial role, to focus on how much work we have to do for Christmas liturgies and as a result overlook the efforts of others to attend Mass.
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The local diner during Christmas season is most likely jammed with people for an entire shift. A lot of the patrons are stressed out and impatient and tend to take things out on a server. (There’s an element in the population who dump their anger and frustration on waitresses and store clerks.) The server has to let it go and continue on with patience and a probably forced friendliness. And then of course there’s the waitresses’ family and the stress of getting presents bought for husband and kids and parents, maybe more. Christmas is a grind for retailers and those in the food industry. A grind. There are no extra days off except for Christmas itself, if it falls on a normal work day. And so “to work so hard to be there” at Church, for that one gleaming moment when something of the sacred reality of the season can be experienced, a sacred reality that the everyday reality of the season beats down…yes, this woman meant what she said. She did work so hard to be there.
Exactly Rita. What I appreciate is that her statement of truth continues to be a foundational part of your work in the “industry.” It is one of those statements that hides itself in the work one does as a liturgist. When liturgists stop worrying about the people who “worked so hard” to get to public prayer, it will mean a show with pretty lights and music but that finishes as soon as one walks out of Church. You story recharges me to look at each person who will walk through the door this Christmas as someone who made a significant choice to be there or a significant choice to drag someone there.
Love that. We never really know the effect our work will have on people.
Sorry it took me so long to read your great story – keep up the good work/good news – we need more and more of the same. Holy, Happy and Peaceful New Year ’17