Last year when Christmas fell on Sunday I loved going to church to celebrate the birth of Christ. It just seemed like the right place to be on Christmas. Yet because the LDS church has no paid clergy (all positions are volunteered by members) church services aren't usually held on Christmas Day, unless it happens to fall on Sunday.
Jon and I really wanted to take our kids to church on Christmas and the Catholic church by our house had Mass at 5 AM, 9 AM, and 11:30 AM on Christmas Day. We went to the 11:30 AM mass and, even though we felt awkward and out of place most of the time, it was really a beautiful experience for our family.
I had been to Mass once before when I was in college, but I didn't remember much about it (except the part where you shake the hands of the people sitting next to you). Asher had lots of questions about why the church looked so different (LDS church's generally don't have crucifixes), why the Priest and the altar boys wore robes, why everyone in the congregation stood up and talked so much, and why we couldn't go take the sacrament when it was offered. It was a good teaching opportunity, though some of the things were hard to explain to a five-year-old! He was especially concerned about why we couldn't take the Sacrament, and I told him we couldn't because we didn't belong to the Catholic church, but we could go up and cross our arms and receive a blessing from the Priest if we wanted. He saw some of the other children do that and I could tell he was thinking about it, but finally decided that next time he might do it.
As Mass progressed I was touched by many things, but something the Priest said really resonated with me. First he implored his congregation not to say "Happy Holidays" but to use the words "Merry Christmas", because he said the name was a reminder of what we were really to focus our worship and celebration on. The "Merry" was a reminder of Mary, the mother of Christ, the "Christ" a reminder of whose birthday it was, and the "mas" a reminder of "mass", in which the the holy Eucharist (the sacrament) was administered. He then beckoned around the half empty chapel and asked where everyone was. Why, on this day when the Son of God was born into the world, the churches were so empty. Where were those gathered together to rejoice? Where were the multitudes gathered to worship him and partake of the emblems of His holy sacrament, in celebration of His life?
It was his use of the words "celebrate" and "worship" interchangeably that really stuck me. And as I sat in that beautiful church on Christmas Day, singing "Hark the Herald Angels" at the top of my lungs, I felt my heart fill with gratitude and love for a Savior who would condescend to come dwell among men.
In that moment I fully understood what the Priest meant by worship being a celebration and I laughed at all the effort I had gone to trying to make our Christmas more "Christ-centered". None of the traditions, meals, decorations, music, or gifts that I had so carefully constructed really came close to the celebration-- the worship-- I experienced during those few hours of Mass. In my heart I was truly worshipping Christ and I was celebrating the day of His birth in a meaningful way.
It was the highlight of my Christmas.
Afterward Jon and I decided that we will try to make attending Mass a Christmas tradition for our family. Though, I did find myself wishing that Christmas could be on Sunday every year so that I could worship on Christmas day with my own congregation. Yet, after a little reflection I decided that feeling out of place, confused, and awkward at Mass once a year might be really good for me. Being out of my "comfort zone" pushed me and made me re-evaluate my own beliefs and practices in a significant way.
I saw plainly that too often my own Sunday worship becomes mundane and routine. I have gone through the motions of it every week for my entire life and it is easy for me to go to Sacrament Meeting and treat the sacrament as a "snack" in the middle of church, rather than the sacred ordinance that it is. I am sure that for some of the Catholics at the 11:30 AM Mass, it was the same mundane routine they had heard their whole life. Yet for me, who had only seen it once before, it was a moving reminder of Christ.
It reminded me that it is all to easy to become complacent in our worship of Christ that we forget to celebrate the miracle of what He has done for us. This Christmas God gave me a taste of what it feels like to have my heart worship-- to really celebrate Christ-- and that was by far the best Christmas gift I received.