Christmas traditions that won’t die — Midnight Mass

Published 9:31 am Saturday, December 24, 2016

By Nathan Decker

There are some Christmas traditions that won’t die — like going to church on Christmas Eve. The tradition I grew up in didn’t go to church on Christmas Eve. Midnight Mass sounded too Catholic for them. Instead, my family’s tradition was to open our gifts from ma and pa on Christmas Eve knowing on Christmas Day we would go to the extended family Christmas. The one where you got all these gifts you didn’t want from aunts and uncles you wouldn’t see again until the next family gathering.
The irony is the first Christmas Eve service I ever went to was in a Catholic Church. I was at college in Danville. Two of my good friends were Catholic, so when they invited me, I went. The priest was very open and joyful. He didn’t care that I wasn’t Catholic. So when the time came for me to receive communion, I went forward with everyone else. And that’s when I encountered the wafer.
I’m not sure what brand of dissolvable cardboard the priest gave me, but it wasn’t bread. Bread has flavor. Bread has texture. Bread travels down to your stomach with a sensation that is real, sensual and gratifying. Not so with the wafer. It had no flavor. It had no texture save the distinct realization by my tongue something had been placed on it with a micro-measure of weight. And after it dissolved in my mouth, I’m not sure any remnant made it any further down the pipe.
I’m not trying to poke fun at our Catholic sisters and brothers. I respect their understanding and practice of the Lord’s Supper. Yet it occurs to me that many times that wafer represents my own experience in spirituality. It lacks flavor. There are times that I can’t tell you the last time I tasted the joy of the Lord’s presence. It lacks texture. There are long places in my own life where I don’t feel as if God is with me; quite the opposite of Emmanuel. It leaves me hungry.
At the first church I served as pastor, I was reminded of this by a 4 year old boy named Cody. It was an ordinary Sunday with ordinary hymns. You might say we were going through the motions. I’m sure it was the first Sunday of the month, because we were having communion. Folks were coming up to the rail in groups as was tradition. They knelt and received a torn bit of bread which they were invited to dip into the cup. But the ordinary disappeared when little Cody received his bread.
“Is that all I get?” He had said it as any 4 year old would have said it. Quiet enough that the entire congregation heard him. Loud enough to embarrass his mother and father. But what struck me was his honesty about the hunger. He didn’t come here for wafers or crumbs. Cody wanted the flavor, the texture, the fulfillment. Cody wanted the feast, all that God would give him. Cody wanted to experience God at the table.
You may be asking what does this have to do with Jesus, the stable, the manger, etc. God didn’t offer us fast-food solutions, but instead offered us a full multi-course feast in this babe, in this birth, in this life, in this death and in this resurrection. He could have been born in a palace, yet he chose a stable. He could have had angels announcing his coming to all humanity, yet he chose shepherds in a field. He could have picked any town — Rome, New York, or Washington D.C., yet he chose Bethlehem, a Hebrew word that translates as “House of Bread.” He could have had the best Tempurpedic, double down, plush bed for his crib, yet mother Mary laid him in a manger — fancy word for a “feeding trough” for animals.
We didn’t come here for a little snack or a bit of fast food. We came here for the whole experience of who Jesus is. Tonight we celebrate his coming to us. Tonight we are invited to experience the whole of who God is in a little child laid in a manger. Tonight we are invited to experience the whole of who God is in a candle light dinner of a little bread and a little wine. Thank God some traditions won’t die. Amen.

NATHAN DECKER is the pastor of High Street United Methodist Church. Contact him at 562-3367.