Father Michael's Last Christmas Mass
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It was Christmas Eve, it was snowing off and on all day, winter darkness had already descended on this part of the world, but there were still many more deliveries to make. There were Christmas cards; last minute advertisements and coupons from Shoprite and Macy’s and Walmart; packages of fruit; gifts from grandma and Aunt Marie. It was not easy working for the postal service, particularly at Christmas, but Laura liked the job, and everyone on her route was grateful that she was the one who delivered their mail.
The deliveries to the rich part of town were done. It was actually easier there, but not necessarily as rewarding. The mailboxes were outside the gates, close to the road, and she rarely got to see or talk to them. But now she was delivering to the ‘other side of the tracks’: trudging up the crumbling porches of houses in need of a paint job, often meeting the people who worked the night shift, those who were homebound, the mothers at home with their babies, or the elderly who were waiting for their checks and the human contact of the mailman. Laura could relate, their lives were challenging, just like her own.
On the next street over was Holy Angels Church, and Father Michael was making his way from the old rectory towards the little chapel behind the big church. It was his 79th Christmas on earth, and it was a particularly difficult one for him. Holy Angels had been closed for over a month now, and Father Michael had been retired along with the church. The world was changing. Back in the day it had been one of the largest and busiest parishes around, but gradually, as the years unfolded, fewer and fewer people had time for or interest in what it had to offer. There were other things to do on Sundays than attend Mass: for the kids, basketball and soccer games, ballet classes, playdates; for the adults, chores that didn’t get done during the week, trips to the beauty parlor, Home Depot, Costco. Of course there were still baptisms and confirmations and weddings and funerals at the church, but there were fewer and fewer, and even those big events had less appeal. Why get married in the church if you could have the whole shebang at a beautiful event space in New Jersey? Why have a funeral at all? Much cheaper and less traumatic for a simple cremation and a few visiting hours at the funeral home.
Father Michael had watched it all decline. He had been at Holy Angels for almost his entire priestly ministry, and even though he was beloved by all, he could do little to overcome the complicated forces of change in the world all around him. His own faith was simple, as uncomplicated as the birth of a little baby boy to a poor man and woman far away from their home.
Christmas had always been the source of Father Michael’s hope for the world. The wonder of it all—God’s humble participation in the broken world---a little baby come make holy the earth and all its creatures. A child born to show us the way home, love divine to triumph over even death. It was Christmas where it all broke through, and Father Michael loved its celebration more than any other.
Laura approached him as he struggled to carry a large box towards the chapel. She called out to him, and he paused and offered a weary smile, slowly putting down his box in the snow. She had a few letters for him. He accepted them gratefully, and she remembered that there was a package for him back in the truck. As she went back, he opened one of the letters. A small card fell out of it. He picked it up. It had the picture of a woman on one side, and some writing on the other. He looked at the picture for a moment, blinked, and read the brief note that accompanied it. When Laura returned, he was looking off in the distance. She noticed a tear escape from his eye. “Are you ok?,” she asked. There was a moment of hesitation as he recollected himself. “Yes,” he said. “Thank you.”
An awkward silence followed, and Laura pointed to the box he had been carrying. “Can I help you with that?” she said. It took him a second to focus on the question. “Yes,” he said, “I would be very grateful.” They carried the box together to the little chapel, a humble structure that had once been a real stable. They went inside, and brought the box to the front, beside the altar. He opened the it, and gently took out a small ceramic angel. “I’ve got to set up the crib,” he said. Laura looked at him quizzically, and as he continued to empty the box he pointed to the figures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. “It’s my last Christmas Mass, and it will be just me and them at midnight here”. He smiled at Laura, and she felt his elderly hand touch her arm. “I’ll be praying for you that you get some rest.” Then he reached down into the box and pulled something else out. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money to give you,” he said, “but I’d like you to have this.” It was a star that had hung over the crib. It was a little chipped and worn. Laura was momentarily taken aback by the gift, but then protested that she couldn’t take it. The old man insisted. “It brings you to Him,” he said, pointing at the baby Jesus, and smiling. “God bless you,” he said. Laura thanked him more than once, and then wished him a wonderful Christmas.
As she left the chapel, she stopped and looked back inside. Father Michael was on his old knees, carefully arranging the manger scene and all its figures. Laura felt this pang of love for the old man, gratitude for the simplicity of his faith, for his service to so many people. And she felt sorry that this is how he was spending his last Christmas at his beloved church. Clutching the star in her hand, she made her way through the snowy night, a good part of her route still ahead of her. And then she got an idea.
The hours went by for Father Michael in the chapel. After setting up the manger scene, he walked slowly down the aisle towards the back of the church and turned around. He took it all in. It was an old building, and it badly needed a paint job. The pews were worn, the floor had cracked linoleum tiles, the ceiling showed signs of water damage. A few of the lights hadn’t worked in years.
How many Masses had he celebrated in this place? And over there, at the baptismal font, all the babies who were welcomed into the family, their little lungs giving surprising force to their cries of protest. And on the walls, the simple, unsophisticated stations of the cross, prayer-stops for so many faithful women and men over the decades. Above the simple wooden altar, the crucifix and its bloody body quietly witnessing to an almost incomprehensible love. He tried to imagine the smell of the cows and the horses that had once lived under the dark beams. How many calves and colts had been born amidst its hay, steam of their mother’s nostrils arising from their birthing labors? The fact that it had been a stable always made saying Mass there feel more authentic and holy, Christ making himself present in such humility.
He walked slowly to the sacristy and dressed for Mass. The alb, the stole, the white vestment—he put them on, one over the other. He walked back out to the front of the altar and sat in the chair beside the manger. There, beside the angel, was the picture that he had received earlier in the mail. He reached over and picked both up, angel in one hand, angel in the other.
He looked at the photo of his first and only real love. The woman in the photo still reflected the beauty that he encountered as a young man. At their first meeting, he saw that Miriam was full of life and love. She was pure, and radiant, and angelic. For all his life, she was an example of selfless devotion to others, the most Christ-like of anyone he ever knew. He loved her so, and never felt worthy of the love she showered on him. For a long time, he was sure that God had brought them together, and that they would spend all the days of their lives as partners in marriage, and with an abundance of children. But it was Miriam who realized that God wanted something else of him. It was Miriam’s love that enabled him to accept another invitation. She led him to the baby, and a life of service to Him. And years later, as he watched her offer her love to another, his heart was full of gratitude that God had given her to someone who really needed that love.
He turned the picture over. On the back of the card were the words “When she loved me, everything was beautiful!”. It hit him hard. The tears started to flow then, because for him, the same was true. He clutched the ceramic angel in his other hand more strongly. And as he looked up through the tears, he saw, coming down the aisle, an… angel. His angel.
It was as if she was a part of the air itself, and powered by the Source of all love. She had a small smile on her face, much like Miriam. He watched her move through the church, coming closer and closer to where he was sitting beside the manger. When she was near, she gestured to the manger, and when he looked, he was astonished to see Mary and Joseph and all the animals standing there as big as himself. Mary had Jesus in her arms, and she looked up from him to Father Michael. She smiled and nodded, and then offered the baby in her arms to him. Michael took him from her, surprisingly unafraid of holding the Divine. He was beautiful, the most beautiful baby he had ever seen. His eyes were wide and bright, and his skin was soft as a lamb’s wool. Michael rocked the baby gently, with a grin on his face that revealed a joy that had invaded him, mind, body and soul. Time stood still, nothing moved. There was only Michael and the baby. Mary looked on, Joseph looked on, the sheep and the cattle looked on, and Miriam, his personal angel looked on. Michael reached down and kissed the baby on his forehead, on his cheeks, on his head.
And suddenly the angel was lifting him up, up, up, slowly into the air. Michael and the baby rising in a slow, beautiful dance, filling the air above everything, and emanating a light that was indescribable. A light that was warm, caressing the air and the walls, the floors, and the pews, the crucifix and the altar—everything. A light that smelled like the most beautiful flower, that tasted like the sweetest food, that sounded like angel’s wings beating the air all around. The angel lifting Michael and the baby, rising together through the roof, between the snowflakes, above the clouds and above the air that gives all things life, out into the heavens filled with as many stars as there are snowflakes, out there to the very Source of everything that is. Michael and the baby and his angel.
At that very moment, as the clock hands turned to twelve, the doors of the chapel opened. A crowd of snow-covered people were there, and at the head of them was Laura, holding the star. They entered the little chapel—men, women, children of all ages, families, single people: all the people to whom Laura had brought the star on her route. They all came to be at Father Michael’s last Christmas Mass. They came to rediscover the child he had been holding for them. And as they approached the front of the church, there he was, sitting in the chair, two little angels at his side. He was dressed for Mass, waiting to bring them Christmas. There was a smile on his face, and his eyes were closed, and even though his spirit had ascended, he held the ceramic baby Jesus in his lap, there for anyone to hold.
Someone began to cry, and then stopped. No one moved. Everyone was taken aback by the beauty and the mystery of this Christmas moment. And then mothers and fathers reached out to their children and held them close, wives and husbands embraced, friends joined hands, and reached out to the stranger. They stood there for what seemed like a long time. And then out of the silence, one small voice emerged, singing. She sang quietly at first, almost stumbling out of emotion, but then everyone else found their voices too, and in that dark little chapel that once was home to cows and horses and calves and colts, a baby was born once again in the hearts of those who were there.
Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace
Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia,
Christ the Savior is born!
Christ the Savior is born
Silent night, holy night!
Son of God love's pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth