The Creasters

Last year I attended Mass on Christmas Day, rather than Eve. I simply hadn’t had the time in the midst of co-hosting the biggest family gathering of the year. But this Christmas Eve, we were done setting up early. Mom’s 3:00 ready-time had miraculously happened, which meant I could attend 4:00 Mass before the extended family arrived.

Christmas is a time of celebration, a literal Christ Mass to welcome the Messiah’s birth. I envisioned the early-evening Mass akin to the celebrations of old, where the family attended church and then had a feast. And a feast we had—a four-course meal awaited us, complete with the traditional seven fishes. We would welcome Jesus into the world, and then celebrate Italian style.

We arrived at church twenty minutes early.

It wasn’t enough.

The nave was packed, standing room only. Parishioners spilled into the narthex. I was crammed into a back corner, jostled every time the door behind me opened. Kids stepped on my feet as they restlessly bounced from one parent to the other. I didn’t have a hymnal, so I only knew the first couple verses of the Christmas hymns. I was accompanied by shushing parents and the crinkling of their children’s bags of snacks.

As I later learned, 4:00 Mass isn’t for celebrating Christ before the feast. 4:00 is to get it over with and get the kids to bed. 4:00 is convenient for those who only attend Mass on Christmas and Easter. The Creasters.

This was not the celebration I had envisioned.

The pinnacle of celebration, the Eucharist, was upon us. I felt a wash of relief, but for the wrong reasons: the rapid emptying of the church. People received the Host in their winter jackets, then filed right out the door. Before the Eucharistic table was even cleared, a third of the congregants had left. Some of us standees hesitated, like the occupants of those empty pews might actually return. But before long, we were moving in.

My lower back was starting to twinge, so I was grateful for the seat and cushioned kneeler. But it also made me sad. Partially for myself, because I’d spent most of Christmas Eve Mass trying (and failing) to push away my annoyance. But mostly for the Creasters. For the ones who left, and for those who’d attended because “that’s just what we do.” I was sad for the restless kids who don’t understand why they have to go to this weird, fancy building when they should be home waiting for Santa. Because Jesus isn’t part of their lives; He’s a twice-a-year obligation. He’s just a baby in a manger, then the resurrected God. He has no life, no ministry, and no death.

“From now on,” I said in the car afterward, “I’m sticking to Christmas day Mass.”

I’m certainly complaining a lot, but it didn’t ruin my Christmas. We had the celebratory feast, and kept the constant reminder of Who we celebrated. And, as I’m inclined to remind everyone, Christmas isn’t over yet. It’s not a single-day celebration—it’s a season, and I refuse to take down my tree until it’s properly over. Everyone has switched over to “Happy New Year,” but I still wish my fellow Catholics a Merry Christmas. Jesus has arrived!

My hope is that some of those Creasters in our packed churches remembered the importance of the celebration. I hope they’ve made resolutions to be active in church again, and keep them. I hope they remember that Jesus is more than just Christmas and Easter, and so are we. Maybe they won’t, be I’ll try not to be cynical. After all, God has wrought bigger miracles.

Advent Spirit

I’ve been unusually contemplative lately, if you can tell from my last few posts. I’ve been doing a sort of mental/spiritual cleanse. A lot of gunk has been building up, and I’ve slowly been picking it apart. We’re talking years of fears, heartache, and rejection. Trying to do good for myself and for others, and often not knowing the difference.

Advent has become a time of reflection for me. It’s not like Lent, which is more penance and abstinence. During Advent, we’re preparing for the coming of Christ. It’s like frantically cleaning the house before company arrives, down to scrubbing the bathroom grout with a toothbrush (as if they’d notice). Except the house is your life, and the company is literally God.

Similar to your home, it’s embarrassing to face how messy it’s gotten. During RCIA, life was going great. I had a direction, and a good one. But while I was okay in faith, everything else was a negligent mess. I was on-track with God, so I blindly jumped into various situation I thought were “right.” But they weren’t. I couldn’t tell that I was swimming in muck, because I’d dumped in glitter so it looked fine and sparkly. It wasn’t until I pulled myself out, and starting picking off the tar, that I realized what had happened. (Glittery muck is the weirdest mental image, but it’s the most accurate metaphor I’ve got.)

Then Advent rolled around. I was inundated with reminders of Christ’s coming and of Mary’s obedience. I was halted by every nativity scene I passed. I always understood why He came to Earth, but this time, it was personal. He came not as an obligation, but because He wanted to. Human beings have mucked up everything—and I’d certainly mucked up my own everything—and God came to clean up the mess. (Spiritual glitter, if you will.)

Earlier this week, I sat in a mostly-empty church for some midday quiet. I was feeling generally sorry for myself, fretting over all that muck. Nothing around me changed, and there was no audible voice, but a little nagging calm started to bloom. I could feel the Spirit whisper, It’s okay.

“But Jesus,” I silently whined, “don’t you know I—”

Shhh. Of course He knows.

I’d been writing a completely different post for this week, but it was starting to get me down. I’ve messed up a lot the past few years. I made some questionable career choices, and was too trusting with untrustworthy people. But I’ve dwelled on these mishaps enough. This Advent reflection isn’t for crying over the mess, but for cleaning it up. Get out that spiritual toothbrush and get the house ready. These weeks before Christmas—the time of Mary’s anticipation in pregnancy—is a kind of forgiveness. God knows I’ve messed up; He knows the details more than I do. But He’s coming anyway.

I just have to be patient. I’m patient enough with other people, but rarely with myself. Cleaning up takes time. I’ve hauled out a lot of mental gunk, but there’s still a ways to go. But Jesus is coming. Advent really is a new year, not just liturgically—it’s a rebirth. A chance for forgiveness. And maybe it’s finally time to tidy up the house.

St. Martha, Dragon Tamer

Recently, I commented on how we don’t know what happened with Martha after Jesus came to visit. He’d gently reprimanded her, so we’re left with the conclusion “be a Mary rather than a Martha.” No bustling around. Take time to sit at Jesus’s feet. I never thought of her much beyond that. But with her recent feast day, I learned maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to be a “Martha.”

Firstly, this tale of the overbusy servant isn’t her only Biblical appearance. She reappears in the book of John after her brother, Lazarus, has died. In case you’re left with the assumption that Martha was all work and no pray, she makes an important declaration to Jesus—and this is before Jesus resurrects her dear brother.

“Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
—John 11:27

But wait—there’s more!

In legends of post-Biblical life, Martha is a force to be reckoned with. Her most famously chronicled tale hails from the Golden Legend, a Medieval compilation of the lives of saints. The tales border on fantastical, and I won’t claim the validity of any of this, but it’s a pretty great story.

After Jesus’s death, Martha and her siblings are said to have been missionaries to France. But this was no peaceful land at that time. In the first century, France was tormented by Tarasque, a legendary dragon-like creature. No military might could defeat it. But Martha could do what no soldier could—she tamed it. In sprinkling holy water, reciting hymns and prayers, she was able to calm it and wrap it in her scarf. She lead the now-docile beast into the city, but the people were still afraid. When they attacked Tarasque, it showed no resistance and they ultimately killed it. Rather than mourn, Martha took this opportunity to evangelize the city and convert many in her wake.

Martha’s crypt can be found at St. Martha’s Collegiate Church in Tarascon, France, the town named after that very same legendary dragon.

Martha and Tarasque grace the facade of Tarascon’s Town Hall. (source)

Maybe, in the end, being a “Martha” isn’t so bad after all.