My family and I were in London on Christmas Eve in 2008, so we attended Midnight Mass in Westminster Abbey. This lovely English church is steeped in history. British monarchs for hundreds of years have been crowned there, so I knew the First Eucharist conducted to praise and worship the king of all kings would be a moving and memorable experience. Indeed, it turned out to be just what I'd expected... once we got inside.
Grabbing one of my son's mittened hands and petulantly cursing England, we had plodded back to the church, hungry. With nose running, I wondered if Mary and Joseph had managed to avoid the temptation of bickering while traveling. I pondered if it was sacrilegious to think they might have enjoyed a spiked eggnog on their way to the Inn.
Waiting in a long line as the temperature continued to plummet, I fantasized about conducting a tailgate for God, dressing the queue of people around me in matching Snuggies, sitting on fold-out stadium seats, and eating from a bucket of fried chicken. I wondered how the British would react to my family if we truly got into a tailgating spirit, built a small fire, and passed around Tupperware bowls full of baked beans and coleslaw as if we were in Athens, Georgia instead of the United Kingdom.
As it was, in the solemn shadow of the seven hundred year old building, we shivered in our properly formal attire--me in a black velvet hat, houndstooth dress, and painfully thin pantyhose--and carefully split a pack of orange Tic-Tacs, hoping our growling stomachs didn't mark us out as Ugly Americans.
The stars formed like ice crystals above us. The night was cold and hushed. I was feeling small and grumpy. In that moment, I didn't even like Christmas.
Finally, the church opened, and we gratefully moved as part of a long stream into the warmth of religion. Heat returned to our extremities, and our jaws dropped at the beauty of the vaulted Gothic ceilings. I imagined the ghosts of those interred around us--Queen Elizabeth I, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Darwin--as we found our seats near the High Altar. We had a great view of the gentleman up on a podium giving the sermon. He was as pink-cheeked as any other man, woman, and child who had braved the cold to join the congregation, and his words of promise, hope and love felt somehow humble despite that grandiose setting.
On that note, while the famous choir was in angelic harmony throughout the service, the man lifting his tenor voice behind my family during "O, Come All Ye Faithful" was most touching. He joyfully sang each stanza slightly off-key, and I smiled broadly, thinking he was so perfectly... human.
It goes without saying that Westminster Abbey is a wonderful place to celebrate one's faith, but as we filed out into the freezing night again, coins tinkling into collection plates for the poor of London, I felt the exact same peace I feel every year: the same sense that something wonderful was about to happen, something wonderful had already happened.
The people who had waited in solemn silence outside the church before the service were laughing and talking on their way to cabs and cars, full of anticipation for the promise of Christmas morning. Beside the mighty Thames, we moved as one with them, hand-in-hand, part of that same happy current flowing out of the iron fence. It did not matter we were from another nation, thousands of miles away from home. For a perfectly redeeming moment, there was nothing else to see or feel but the glory of God, good will towards men.
I love Christmas.