If you have never attended Midnight Mass you are missing a beautiful event. Next to Easter it is one of the most anticipated celebrations on the calendar. Regardless of the denomination, Easter and Christmas are the two days when the churches are packed with parishioners spilling out to the aisles.
Midnight Mass is also one of the most decorated of all the Masses. The sanctuary is adorned with pine, poinsettias, trees and other trappings of Christmas. In many churches, the transformation from the repentant Advent season morphs into the beauty of the season almost overnight by an army of volunteers. Those volunteers are proud, rightfully so, of their accomplishment. All of this work adds to the beauty of the celebration.
As a young altar server, to be selected to serve at this pinnacle of the season was an honor and as you can imagine…my story unfolds from here.
I started my career on the altar when we were still required to memorize the Latin prayers. Sister Marie, (from the blog “Your Hand will Stick out of the Grave 10/10/14 fame) was the examiner testing our proficiency with the prayers. You didn’t step on the altar until she gave her approval.
Once you mastered the Latin responses and went through the drills to learn your duties and positions on the altar, you were placed on the schedule of Sunday and weekly morning Masses. The early morning Masses were the real challenge. It meant getting up well before normal school time and then walking up the four blocks to church in the dark. If you were dependable in these early mornings, it wasn’t long before you were moved up the scale of serving at funerals, which got you out of a couple hours of class and put you in line for an occasional wedding on the weekends.
I soon turned altar serving into a for profit position. I was the server called on for funerals, weddings and special occasions. The pastors, of which I went through three in my tenure, soon turned to me as their master of ceremonies for all of the liturgical events. It was my responsibility to make sure everyone knew their place, the altar was ready to go, and we had enough personnel to carry out the celebration. For this service, I was usually slipped a few bucks by the priest, the family of the bride or the local funeral director.
Not a bad part-time job.
The first Midnight Mass of my MC career arrived. The church was decorated with Christmas trees on each of the side altars. Poinsettias were in every nook and cranny of St. Peter and Paul. The back altar with a carved wood back drop climbed to the ceiling. Injected at each level was a shelf holding a candelabra surrounded by poinsettias and the statues of the patron saints, Peter and Paul.
As midnight drew closer the church filled from front to back, quite opposite of the usual pattern of Sunday mornings. The church was dark with the exception of the red sanctuary light which cast a strange glow on those in the first pews. Around 11:30 the tradition of the living Rosary started. Students from the high school would walk in carrying blue or red votive candles depicting their role in the rosary decades. When it was over, the church took on the warm glow of mixed colors blended with the soft sounds of the choir. The atmosphere that inspired “Silent Night” settled on the whole congregation.
The time to light up the altar arrived. As the oldest server, and also the tallest, the honor and duty of lighting all of the candles fell to me. The candles on the lower front altar were no challenge. As the candle flames multiplied, so did the light cast from the sanctuary.
The next task was the candles on the back altar. Again, those on the lower back altar proved to be easy to light. Now it was time to tackle those on the next level.
With the candle lighter extended to maximum length, I was able to reach the highest candle by stretching myself out to my longest length.
Now if you employ a little knowledge of physics you can understand some of the dynamics of the actions that follow. When you have a pole reaching out six or seven feet, movement of several inches at one end transmits to twelve inches or better on the other end. If you stick a flame on the end of it, it now looks like a bouncing tongue of flame in the darkness.
With a full church behind me and nothing more for them to do than watch this process, I had the congregation’s full attention. Mothers grasped fathers with vise grip fear while they covered the eyes of sleepy little children with their free hand. The bouncing flame moved from one candle to the next each time coming closer to the dry wooden altar façade. Each level up required more of a stretch and with each stretch the ability to hit the target candle lessened.
With one miss swing the flame touched the leaf of the closest Christmas flower. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that poinsettias are not flammable. A collection of ooOOs and aaAAHHs rose from the crowd behind me. You would think they were attending the July 4th fireworks, not the December 24th holy celebration. The poinsettia went up in a flash and in my mind I pictured the entire back altar going up in a blazing apocalypse.
Thank God, this was pre-cell phone days. I am sure the thumbs would have been hitting 911 before the first leaf went up. Once again my guardian angel was tested. He must have flown up and with one mighty blow, extinguished the flower as quickly as it erupted. A blackened pot sat there as obvious as a black dog in a snow storm. This was fortunately the last of the candles to be lit. There was nowhere for me to hide. I only had one recourse and that was to retreat to the sacristy with the hope that Fr. Chonta was not paying attention to the congregation’s reactions.
All was fine until the opening procession for the Mass. As we approached the altar Fr. Chonta had to be blind not to see the glaring charred pot sitting under the statue of St. Peter. Being the saintly man that he was, he never mentioned the obvious eyesore. I think we were both secretly thankful St. Peter was a rock and not one of the wooden statues of the side altars.
Midnight Mass was…all part of growing up.
By James Metcalfe
“Garden of my Heart”
(One my mother’s meditation books)
In cassock and surplice white…He takes his privileged place…To serve the priest at Holy Mass…With reverence and grace…He kneels and stands with folded hands…And piously he shares…The Latin words and phrases of… Profound liturgical prayers… He moves the missal and the cloth… He sounds the altar chimes…The designated times…At benedictions he is there…To swing the censer high…And waft the fragrant incense to…The angels in the sky…He is the acolyte of God…Whose special time is spent…In serving Mass and being near…The Blessed Sacrament.