Once upon a Christmas, Pedro* and I set off for church. I’m spending the holiday with L’Arche in part to get a chance to see my husband (whose holiday schedule has him sharing time for up to 13 hours a day) and in part because the L’Arche members are a part of my family. I’ve spent my last five Christmases with them, so when my friend Pedro sets his heart on going to mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, I open my heart and say yes to accompanying him there.
We take a few wrong turns in the labyrinthine parking garage, but we make it to the sanctuary as the mass is starting. The mass is entirely in Spanish, and so I can follow along in a general way, but mostly, I sit and let the beauty of spoken words wash over me. I’ve brought along a book to read — but after a few minutes, I find myself slipping into a peaceful meditation. I look at the lovely stones that form the arched ceilings. I watch Pedro, who is listening, quiet, reflective. Pedro in a church is like a different person; it’s as though he checks his loquaciousness at the door of the cathedral.
Amigos by Candlelight, La Navidad, 2007.
We’re getting along swimmingly until it’s time for the Eucharist to be served. I can feel my body tensing up. As a (non-denominational) follower of Christ, I always feel a pang of hurt that I’m not welcomed to share in the sacrament at a Catholic mass. There’s always a sense of unwelcome, a feeling of ‘otherness’ that takes away from the experience for me. I feel caught in a double-bind; I want to partake in the Eucharist to reflect my belief in God, but I want to respect the church I’m visiting, and its members as well.
This feeling is compounded by the fact that I’m sitting with Pedro, who leans over and whispers to me that he’s not going to get up and receive. Though Pedro has been confirmed as a Catholic, I can tell that the considerable distance from our pew to the altar is a deterrent for him. The aisles of the church are wide enough for us, but something (fatigue, pain, self-consciousness, or a combination of the three) keeps Pedro from going up. I nod, respecting his choice. We sit together, in the bittersweet solidarity of two people who aren’t quite welcome.
But then, right when I least expect it, an older woman with a smiling face comes near to us. She’s carrying wafers and wine; she’s come to serve us communion. Pedro’s face lights up — he’s thrilled. And in this moment of sacred surprise, I am too. This woman and her unexpected gift has suddenly embodied Christmas for me.
I’ve carried that simple act of love in late December with me into the new year, into this new season of resolutions and plans and things to do. Every now and again, I still catch myself falling into tension and stress. I let myself get into a mindset of feeling unwelcome in the world, and unprepared for the challenges I face. But when I do, I remember this great secret: whenever I’m feeling this way, chances are, there’s something I’m not seeing, some needed help on the way … the metaphorical equivalent of the woman who approached our pew when I least expected her.
A woman I’ll never know brought God near to Pedro and me when we felt far away.
And the message of Christmas is also that simple, that profound. We aren’t alone in whatever struggles we’re going through. God is with us. Beyond race or creed or language or denomination or faith or lack thereof. Beyond our limitations, beyond our preconceived ideas about what is and isn’t God, a love beyond our imaginings. And so when the woman at the cathedral offered me bread and wine with a welcoming gesture, my response was nothing but yes.
Have you experienced a moment of unexpected welcome this season? Tell me in the comments!
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