Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
I’ll never forget the first time I went to midnight Mass. It was a few years ago, when our third child was still an infant. In retrospect, it was not the best year for us to try this; considering that we were already getting precious little sleep with a three-month-old and two toddlers in the house, we would have been better off going to one of the mid-morning Masses on Christmas day. But I’d never been to midnight Mass, and I really wanted to experience it, so my husband and I made our way down to the church an hour after we normally would have gone to sleep for the night.
It didn’t take long for things to go downhill. We couldn’t find parking, and had to walk a long way in the cold air. A crowd of thousands was packed into the sanctuary, and we had to stumble over a long row of people to find what seemed to be the last seat in the entire church. Then, as O Come All Ye Faithful filled the air, I started to feel tired. Incredibly, deeply, bone-weary TIRED. I tried to focus on the entrance procession through bleary eyes, but I was overwhelmed with thoughts of how overwhelmed I would be the next day (my husband affectionately calls this “pre-worrying”). With three children under the age of three, Christmas morning promised to resemble some combination of a circus and an insane asylum…and it was going to start about six hours from now. The baby would undoubtedly wake up at least a couple of times before then. And, come to think of it, had I really gotten as many gifts for my son as I had for his sisters?!
As the last people poured into the building, I heard some commotion behind us. A lady had squeezed into the pew and was greeting what seemed to be her husband and her sister, hugging them and telling them merry Christmas. At various lulls in the Mass she would occasionally turn to them and quietly exclaim something like, “Isn’t this wonderful?” or “This is so exciting!”
Meanwhile, when we kneeled for the consecration, I leaned heavily on the pew in front of me. My mind drifted once again to the task of pre-worrying about all the stressful things that could transpire the next day. And then I remembered that we had to go out of town later that week, and my will to live took a dive. To even ponder what it would take to pack up everything we’d need to take three young children on a five-day trip made me want to use the kneeler as a pillow and give up and go to sleep. Just when my mental whining reached a crescendo, the lady behind me exclaimed breathlessly:
“There he is.”
I was so consumed by my selfish thoughts that my first reaction was, Who? I lifted my head to look around, and my eyes rested on the consecrated Host that the priest held above the altar. Of course, I thought. There He is. I had been in the presence of a miracle, and all I could do was think about how many diapers I’d have to pack to go out of town.
At the end of the Mass, as we all got to our feet and Joy to the World! shook the sanctuary walls, the lady behind me giddily shouted: “Merry Christmas! I’m so excited, it’s CHRISTMAS!” And then I saw her introduce herself to the people I thought had been her husband and sister. As it turns out, she didn’t know them at all. She had hugged them and exchanged ebullient greetings with them simply because she wanted to share her joy. I turned around to smile at her, and she silently mouthed, “It’s CHRISTMAS!”
I laughed and shook my head as I considered what a grouch I’d been earlier in the evening. It was Christmas, for goodness’ sake! It’s the holiday that still sends shockwaves of peace and joy throughout the world, that inspires people of all walks of life to be more kind and gentle for this one season. It’s the celebration of the coming of the Savior, the opening act of the greatest story ever told! It’s the holiday that led me to experience Christ, even before I believed.
I walked out of the church that night with a new awareness of the joy that was all around me on this most special of days, and it lasted all through the next day (even though the baby did wake up in the night an things were about as crazy as I’d imagined they’d be).
I never did see that lady again, though I’ve often wondered about her. Was she in town from somewhere else? Was she a parishioner who then moved after the holidays? Sometimes I like to think that she was an angel, sent by the Holy Spirit to smack me upside the head when I needed it most. I think of her every Christmas, and the she still inspires me to set aside my worries, let wonder overtake me, and simply, joyfully exclaim as she did: “It’s CHRISTMAS!”