“What? No one is going?” I whispered harshly to my husband as he quietly shook his head.
“Are you sure?” I asked again in disbelief.
“We’re not going to let them steal our joy,” SJ sagely counsels. Belying my reactionary nature, I take his lead and suck it up.
It’s Christmas Eve. Attending Christmas church service to celebrate the birth of Jesus has been a life-long family tradition. It’s always sad when the traditions seem to die.
In my early years I recall having a love-hate relationship in the Catholic tradition. We would go on Christmas morning, before the vigil Mass was “invented,” thus spoiling a PJ-new presents-yummy breakfast morning. Still, even if Christmas landed on a Saturday or a Monday, we were still “obligated” to attend Mass on Sunday as well. Given that New Year’s Day is also a holy day of obligation, attending four Masses in 2 weeks generally wasn’t fun for a kid.
Fast forward to our own family, and “Protestantism.” I don’t think our kids ever missed a Christmas Service. I loved sitting in the pew together, lighting the candles at the end and singing Silent Night. It always brought tears to my eyes. We tried to not only educate our kids in the faith and read the Bible stories; we tried to live it every day. I tried to point out the marvels of creation in nature every day to them. They were always receptive and participated. Each of our kids in their own way had a deep and spiritual heart up until high school years; however 2015 apparently was the last year we could convince anyone to join us at a church service.
As parents in the Christian tradition, we took seriously the biblical mandate to raise our children in the admonition of the Lord, and to share God when we stood, sat, walked, and lay down; to pass along the legacy and the meaning of our beliefs. It was not a little disconcerting when they began to reject it.
Each of our three has drifted in different directions with regard to their faith lives, and I am assured that this is common. Our eldest is a scientist who studies and contemplates the mysteries of the universe, and in his 23 year old brain there is no room for mystery or miracles, which astonishes me. How can he stare into the heavenly bodies and question there is a God? Our youngest says she “believes in God, and prays,” yet she is making some choices we find morally unwise (we try to keep this to ourselves and not condemn). She is my “easiest” and most “forgiving” child. I’m grateful for her, but sad that she’s missing out on the salvation message that apparently didn’t resonate for her in her formative years. I just pray that she’ll eventually get there. The middle child is the one that is most perplexing. Always our most difficult and angry child, her faith took off by leaps and bounds, academically far beyond our own; she decided to spend her 4 undergraduate years studying the Christian faith. Her life is imbued with her church, faith, study, and daily fellowship with other (rather fundamental) Christians. Her 21 year old faith is dogmatic and a bit unyielding and unforgiving, with absolutes and judgments about “others” that are a little scary to us, and sometimes quite self-righteous. We pray that her faith will mature and becomes more seasoned with grace and the experience of living.
And we know there is nothing we can do now but pray and try to live out the Gospel in our own lives.
My husband and I both worship differently from how we were raised. Having witnessed too much hypocrisy and elitism in the Catholic Church and among professed Catholics in my family, I couldn’t continue in that tradition. I was raised in a generation where we “hoped” we were saved, and their was no assurance beyond the “hope of heaven” (if we were good enough), and the probability of purgatory or hell. Hearing the salvation message of Jesus Christ in my 20s turned me quickly to embrace any church where the Gospel was preached (and many of these had their flawed people and leaders). SJ had a rote faith– having attended and been involved in church youth programs in a mainline protestant denomination his entire life, he continued into adulthood doing what he thought was the “right thing” but with no heart in it. It was almost the deal breaker during our courtship when I asked him if he knew he was saved and he responded he wasn’t sure. Since then his study and faith has eclipsed mine, but it is still a quiet faith that is more action than words.
Still, our families clearly felt “betrayed” by our faith decisions. Mine of course couldn’t understand that I would leave “the ONE true faith.” His, in the words of his Mom to our minister once “We’re just not religious like they are…” The fact that our family prayed before meals was uncomfortable for them, as faith needed to be “private” and unspoken as far as they were concerned.
No faith practice involving sinful humans is perfect. No one faith practice or religion fits all. There are lots of differences, and there is a lot of hypocrisy. Attending church does not make a Christian any more than being in a parking lot makes one a car. SJ and I cringe at the self-acclaimed “perfect Christians,” and openly claim to be sinners who have fallen short of the mark and need a Savior.
I do know that many of us have to find our own faith, and that the faith practices of our parents may not be the one we choose. Many drift away from the church. May have seen hypocrisies they can’t broker. I’m sure ours have seen hypocrisies in their own parents, but hopefully we’ve done a better job than most of living our faith authentically without being Pharisees or clanging gongs.
Still, I see Facebook pictures of our friends with their entire families, grown children, at Christmas Eve service together, and I can help but be (sinfully) envious (“Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not self-seeking.”). What did they do differently?
So SJ and I dressed in our Christmas best, and without a word of reproach to our kids, headed off to Christmas Eve service alone last night. I tried to bury the prideful side of me
that would have loved to “be seen” with my entire wonderful family, not to mention my heart aching for them to share our faith. As the traditional carols were sung, and battery-operated candles lit, the tears stung my eyes, but I remonstrated myself to not feel sad or bitter.
I looked around the school auditorium where our current church meets. In addition to the families and couples, I saw way too many standing alone on this Christmas eve. I hoped they would have places to go tomorrow on Christmas Day, and wondered if we could fit one more body in our tiny apartment. I wiped away my tears, said a quiet prayer for them, for our kids, and considered my blessings as I linked my arm in my husband’s. We stood together worshiping and singing carols in a too-high pitch, together.
I managed a small laugh to myself. We don’t have the picture-perfect family, that’s for
sure. But we have a good one. All of our kids are decent human beings who work hard, and are still learning and growing into their adulthood. Sure, they are know-it-alls and little ungrateful shits at times (especially during Christmas service, lounging in their sweats at home). And, I am with my wonderful husband for as long as we both live.
We are family, and we are together.
That’s a Christmas blessing.