On Christmas Eve, my brothers and sisters and I would sing, "Tomorrow will be Christmas, and we will carols sing; So early in the morning, the sweet church bells will ring…" No one ever sings that carol now, but it is still in my memory from more than 60 years ago.
It was the 1950s, and the earliest Mass then was at 5 a.m. I was a choirboy, and as I hustled across the street in the frosty morning air with the red cassock, starched white surplice, thick celluloid collar, and the crimson silk ribbon bow tie, I stole a glance upward at the stars as the church bells rang.
Imagining Jesus born in a stable thousands of years before, I hoped in a young kid's way that I might even spot some angels. I also wondered with anticipation what I might find under the tree when I got home.
We were not allowed to look at our presents until after Mass. Our parents would make us all go to bed, then put up a tree from scratch (no artificial ones then), assemble model trains on a platform, and small piles of presents for my many siblings — practical stuff like socks and underwear along with a toy, and occasionally for a lucky one, a repainted second-hand bike from a neighbor.
It was all magical and wonderful, even if the tree fell over on a rambunctious younger brother later in the day.
I'm a priest now and we still celebrate Christmas in a big way, even though our parents are gone home to God.
On Christmas Eve, we gather at my sister's house in West Chester for carols around the neighborhood first, then a Mass in the living room, followed by gifts (not the big emphasis now) and lots of delicious potluck food from the siblings and their children.
It is a bit challenging trying to pull off Mass reverently with 30 or more people around a coffee table altar in the living room, surrounded by young children vying to be my altar girls, with their parents — my nieces and nephews for the most part — looking on with bemusement. These are the practicing Catholics.
Others, of varying or no involvement with the Church, sit in the room farther back, many of them young adults. In the room farthest back, are those who may belong to other churches — a Buddhist or two and possibly some agnostics. Occasional laughter spills from this farthest room into the living room as we sing "O Holy Night."
As I prepare for this year's gathering, I wonder how I can offer a few words after the Christmas Gospel that will touch my family, especially the young adults. It is such a challenging time when so much is happening in the world that breeds fear.
Were Mary and Joseph afraid, I wonder? If not when Mary had to give birth in a stable, then surely when they soon had to escape Herod and seek a possible home in Egypt.
What are people's fears today? The kids squatting in front of me, their eyes aglow in the candlelight — are they afraid? Are their young parents around the altar more afraid than the young adults in the back room because they have kids? What can I say to them that is real?
Something about joy wants to be my message. A joy that overcomes fear. The joy that the angels announced to the shepherds. The joy that Isaiah's voice still rings through the ages in Pope Francis' The Joy of the Gospel. The joy that a simple faith stirs up in a believing heart, that God came to Earth on this night long ago to claim a place among us — not above us.
Don't we all desire this belief, even if our lives and the world's cynicism scoff at our childhood hope on this special night?
Mary and Joseph may have fled in fear with their child to Egypt, yet with a joy that was deeper and more powerful because the little boy they clutched needed his mother's milk like the rest of us.
The Word became flesh, became human.
It can be the same for us if we allow our own humanity to be claimed by God on Christmas Eve. We might remember then our forgotten child's song, "Tomorrow will be Christmas, and we will carols sing; So early in the morning, the sweet church bells will ring…"