Midnight Mass

More earnestly than I would like to admit, going to church on Christmas helped bring me back to God

KALININGRAD, RUSSIA - DECEMBER 24, 2020: Roman Catholic believers light charcoal in an incense burne...
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Nicholas Russell

If Christmas is a season of traditions, then midnight mass might be one of the few (mostly) Catholic rituals even half-hearted followers make an effort to observe. It’s a banner day for all the lazy and/or nominal believers who normally only show up to mass for the big holidays. That used to include me, until I lost, or at least misplaced my faith, and stopped attending church altogether. But last year something drew me back to midnight mass — something like an unanswered question, or a still-burning ember. I was curious what, if anything, had changed.

For starters, “midnight mass” isn’t even necessarily at midnight anymore. My childhood parish has services at 10 p.m. and midnight. But the general idea is still the same: we’re all gathered, foregoing sleep so that we can herald the coming of our nascent Lord and Savior. Really, midnight mass has all the best parts of going to church: Lots and lots of incense, festive colors, people dressed up (and lots of them, which was usually an exciting sight to behold, before the pandemic), and my favorite aspect, the slightly child-like, giddy sense that we’re all staying up past our bedtime. Too, it is perhaps the most intentionally welcoming of services; those priests know who does and doesn’t show up every Sunday. Plus, it appeals as one of the most joyous dates in the Catholic liturgical calendar. Each hymn, each prayer gets the full-throated participation of the congregation. It’s hard to shake the feeling that, even if you don’t fully believe what you’re saying, your protests shrink before the sheer size and volume of the crowd.

More earnestly and surprisingly than I’d like to admit, attending midnight mass inaugurated the year I fully came back to God, though I’m still figuring out what exactly that means. I’m not alone in this spiritual roundabout journey. I’ve noticed and talked to a growing number of people who find themselves drawn back to religion in its various forms, to older, richer types of community that allow for collective introspection. Those who have a foundation similar to mine — Catholic family, Catholic school — tend to become lapsed or, as Christian Wiman writes in his luminous My Bright Abyss, “conflicted believers, God-haunted atheists, or even the neo-atheists whose very avidity gives them away.”

I’ve been all three of those things at one time or another. It felt more like a war of attrition with my surroundings as a child, with constant trips to church at school or with family making the concept of true, emphatic religious faith seem like something you had to put a certain number of hours in in order to get something from it. This gave way to a stubborn, brash materialist phase, and finally to a quiet but insistent suspicion that I might have missed something. Truthfully, Catholicism is a frustrating religion for people who are looking for positive feedback from God. It’s a faith of absences, one that not only acknowledges the silence of the divine, the lack of obvious “signs” or “presences,” but actively encourages acceptance of it. That phrase “leave room for God” that some people may have heard in the context of appropriate physical distance during a school dance applies here. “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence,” Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace. I’ve found that can also mean an absence of faith at times. This is the tension between a personal spiritual journey and congregating in a physical place with multiple people in order to further it. Church is where you are supposed to be present, regularly, intentionally, while at the same time engaging in a kind of mindfulness and divine communication that is hard to grasp.

But if, when I was younger, belief couldn’t be made stable through ritual, it could at least be made legible. By which I mean to say that, in church, you can see a wide variety of people attending for very different reasons, while still practicing their spiritual devotion with the same words and songs and gestures, over time, all together and decide if that’s what your experience is like as well. This is where I am these days, devout in certain small practices that are less acts of divine conjuration than earnest attempts at communication and consistency. If we’re lucky, those of us who believe, however hesitantly or unabashedly, find something — a voice, a vision, or something more pedestrian, like a brief feeling of understanding, of that ephemeral, awesome experience people call grace — that reaffirms their faith. When I was a kid, ritual tended to become rote, rather than felt, which is exactly how, in middle school, after five or six years of going to church three mornings a week before class, I fainted during mass and found a loophole in the mandatory attendance requirement of Catholic school. But the same roteness that leads away from real feeling can also lead you back to it, like a muscle memory.

In his book, Centering Prayer, Basil Pennington writes, “It is a risky thing to pray, and the danger is that our very prayers get between God and us.” For me, church was what got between me and God. Or, at least, my specific parish in suburban Las Vegas, which preaches the kind of bland, vaguely right-wing kind of Catholicism that reminds people of every bad thing the Church has ever done. It’s easy to be put-off by, easy to feel alienated from, easy to sense that there is no room for one’s own interpretation or understanding or feelings about something as all-encompassing and consequential as God. It takes a while to realize that every person has their own idiosyncratic, often beautiful, sometimes bewildering take on what they believe, even in a religion as formally rigid as Catholicism.

It takes a while, too, to give credence to the very thing that draws many people to it: it’s really, really old. As a friend recently said to me, “I tend to think of being Catholic as entering into a broad and deep tradition of spirituality, one that ranges from medieval mystics to high-minded theologians to poor peasants saying the rosary.” What he was really saying is that there can be as many ways of being Catholic as there are Catholics. As many ways of walking away from the Church as there are of returning.

If there is any tenderness lingering in your soul for a faith that feels gone, you might be as surprised as I was to find it in a midnight mass service. But it’s also beautiful, graceful even to be in a shared space with so many people at such an hour inviting the unseen to make itself known. In small doses, ritual can give way to vulnerability, to a deeply personal and deliberate opening up. People always talk about how the Christmas season feels different, like there’s more possibility or love or happiness in the air. It’s a season of whims, of getting swept up in the grandeur and fun of it all. It’s also a season of reification, of cyclical understanding. At all times during the Catholic year, the life of Jesus is scrutinized, reenacted, and exalted. But I’m most drawn to the stories told during Christmas for how they throw into relief what inevitably comes later for him. A divine being who grows up to be flawed, frustrated, anguished, rife with love, happiness, consideration, and, in crucial, meaningful places, doubt. That’s what I go to church to be reminded of, and why midnight mass has become so potent and resonant.

I’ll be going to midnight mass this year, safety permitting, though I know it won’t be a consistent tradition. I will inevitably lapse into doubt, into anger and confusion at God, at what I believe in. And I will inevitably, hopefully find my way back.

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.