Evening comes early on this solstice day. The sky lies under a heavy veil, but it is unseasonably warm and wet. We likely won’t see the marvelous conjunction, Jupiter and Saturn meeting once in 400 years.
The parking lot is bare of snow, puddled in the twilight. Bulwarks of snow rise along the side where the plow pushed and shoved it out of the way, clearing a space for us. The sidewalk is mostly clear but with a scattering of blue salt crystals and encroaching walls of snow left by whoever cleared an imperfect path. The narrowed path makes us walk in single file. Across the grass is a sugar crust of ice that once was snow, marked with lines of dark footprints revealing muddy ground beneath.
Near the rectory someone is shoveling the old snow, making a path more clear. The side door of the church stands open in welcome; but following the signs we troop to the front doors where Isabella tugs and tugs at the huge ring unable to get them to budge. They are heavy wooden doors, that would not look out of place in a castle. Just as I am about to turn back to the open side doors, it moves and we enter one by one, feeling slightly furtive, our coats swishing, our boots tromping up the carpeted stairs.
The church is half dark and we genuflect and peer around, I see a white-albed figure flit ghostly past the window. The red light flickers at the far end of the nave beside the golden tabernacle door. Otherwise, we are alone in the silent church below the vaults. We have our pick of pews, though they are roped off with yellow caution tape and green and blue — a reminder of these strange times we are in. We file into a pew at the back— more or less. Someone decides to sit elsewhere.
The priest beckons through the glass and one child decides to go first. Before the altar the stable stands, empty manger waiting to be filled. Mary, Joseph, donkey, shepherds and sheep, waiting for a baby. The Easter candle stands before the stable, a light waiting to be lit. I wonder why it’s out. Was there a baptism or anointing of the sick?
Some of the children decide to visit the stations of the cross .They make their slow and noisy circuit, reading every label. We’ve been doing this pilgrimage since they were babies whenever we were in the church outside of Mass. Stations in an empty church, a familiar ritual they haven’t forgotten and I love that they keep it on their own with no prompting from me.
One by one they peel off from the group to go make their confession then kneel alone to pray in the pews on the other side while the next one goes.
Finally, my turn, last of all, like a shepherd who waters the sheep before stooping to drink, I slip in through the door and forget the children as I bare my wounds and ponder motherhood and sin, love and loss and the Father’s perfect love. Our pastor is a very good confessor and I feel cherished and beloved and full of grace.
And then from the church as the grace pours upon me I hear their voices singing sweetly, perfected by the space, the high gothic arches, resounding between the stained glass windows and among the organ pipes and down the length of the vault to where the angels soar above the altar: People Look East, they sing. And O Come Divine Messiah.
And I finish my confession and my penance and wonder if Father is enjoying the concert, the sweet voices of children singing: O Come O Come Emmanuel in the winter-bound church at dusk.
Kneeling I help one distressed child finish his penance. He has forgotten the words and I am the memory who holds the prayers and the world together and so I pray with him, adding his intentions to mine.
And then we troop outside again while hidden behind the cloudy veil at the end of the shortest day of the year Jupiter and Saturn draw close together—some wonders are hidden from our sight but still we wonder as we turn back to the van and drive home through the night singing out Christmas lights! Christmas lights! and filling the night with moving song.
And we crown the night with pizza and gingerbread with ice cream. Because the mercy of the Lord is sweet.
Christ was with us in the sacrament and Christ was with us in the singing. And in the driving home in the dark looking at lights and more singing. And in the celebratory eating of gingerbread and ice cream. Because God loves us and his love is with us and life is really really beautiful.