As a Jewish child, I never celebrated Christmas. I found out what I was missing on Christmas Eve, 1973.
My high school boyfriend, Brian, invited me to join his family for their celebration. The event floored me. It wasn’t just the illuminated tree, the music, and the pleasure of opening gifts. It was the power of the holiday to transform Brian’s ordinary family.
Laughing, singing hymns, praying — they were absolutely radiant. I had never seen them so joyful. And in their presence, I felt joyful, too.
That was my one and only Christmas experience, and it never occurred to me to have another one. But this year’s Christmas felt different. This year, I purchased my first Bible. And I’m now blessed with having friends, both virtually and in real time, who are believers. Given that God has taken center stage in my life, I decided it was time to celebrate another Christmas.
I searched the Internet and found a large Catholic church the next town over. My plan: come early and sit inconspicuously in the back row. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. I’d never been to church before, and I had no idea what to do.
With my plan firmly in place, I was as excited as a little kid about attending the 5:00 pm Family Mass. I couldn’t wait to see the Nativity play, both for the adorable children and because I was a bit fuzzy on the plot.
I arrived, parked, found my way into the chapel (is that what it’s called?), and sat down in the last pew. As I watched the immaculately dressed families pouring in, I noticed my first faux pas — a fashion one. I had dressed all in black, while the other women looked resplendent in festive colors, especially red.
I wear a lot of black. It befits not only my salt-and-pepper hair, but also my somewhat edgy New York Jewish vibe. But here, I looked positively funereal. Luckily, the only witness to my gaffe was a very shy five-year-old girl sitting next to me, who looked pretty in pink.
Needing to use the bathroom, I planned to slip discreetly in and out of the room. I walked outside, and had no idea where was the bathroom. After I wandered around aimlessly, the priest himself escorted me to the restroom. I’m sure we were a sight: me in black; him adorned in crisp white robes.
In the bathroom, a woman smiled and introduced herself as Cathy (everyone was so nice and friendly, a radical departure from typical Berkeley life). She asked me whether the other priest was feeling better. The following conversation ensued:
Me: I don’t know. I’ve never been to this church before.
Cathy: Oh, really? Where do you usually worship?
Me (stammering) Well. Actually. I’ve never been to a church before.
Cathy: (puzzled) Oh. Are you here to see one of the children perform?
Me: No. (I want to give her a clear explanation, but given that I don’t know why I’m here, my mind goes blank.)
Cathy: (thinking deeply) So, you’ve never been in a church but decided to come here on Christmas Eve.
Me: Yes. (Her explanation was simpler than the one I would have given: “I’m a cultural Jew who’s never been to a synagogue and then I practiced Buddhism for twenty years, but that left out the God part. And then I became a conservative and now I have all these beautiful Christians in my life, so I decided to attend a mass.”)
Cathy looked at me strangely, but finally uttered an enthusiastic, “Good!”
Given that my plan to blend in wasn’t working, I headed back to the shelter of my pew. I buried my head in the — whatever they call it — the book of songs that’s in the wooden cabinet. (Catholics have a name for everything, and I know none of them.)
I was jolted by a tap on my shoulder. A stressed-out woman who looked to be in charge asked, “Will you hand these out?”
Incredulous, I could not speak. She repeated, slowly now, as though addressing a child: “Will you stand in the aisle and hand these out when people come in?” As if in a dream, I rose from my fortress and took the hundred or so pink brochures while she sped away. I opened the booklets and saw that they contained lyrics to the hymns.
Trying not to panic, I thought, “I can do this. I’ll just imitate the other ushers.” I looked around to observe the others in action. But there were no other ushers. I was the only usher.
Given that I had never been in a church, I was clueless about my role. Should I act like a perky WalMart greeter: “Welcome to St. Luke’s!”? But how could I, who basically wandered in off the street, welcome parishioners to their own church?
Okay, I thought, don’t freak out. I can do this. As a family walked in, I started to say, “Hello, would you like a…?” and then paused. What were these things called, anyway?
I racked my brains for words used by my new Catholic friends: Eucharist, Communion, Homily. So, what do they call the music?
Finally I just said, “Hi, would you like the music for today’s mass?” which was a mouthful and caused some confused looks, but it was the best I could do.
The next thing I knew, I was the go-to person. People started asking me questions: how long would the mass last? Was that row reserved? Are photographs allowed? Of course, I couldn’t answer any of them.
Suddenly, I started laughing at the absurdity of my plight. I realized that God had a playful sense of humor…and that he seemed to be nudging me right into the fold.
I then saw Cathy, from the bathroom, standing in the back watching me with amusement. Wearing some type of robe herself, she clearly was a lay leader in the church. She appeared to find my transformation from clueless visitor to usher quite the mystery.
Just as my gig was winding down, the coordinator returned. With most of the congregation seated, she asked me to encircle the entire church, ensuring that everyone had a brochure.
When she saw my look of raw panic, she took the brochures out of my hands and did the job herself.
I decided to go out into the vestibule for a few minutes to get my bearings back. After taking a few deep breaths with my eyes closed, I was already feeling better.
When I opened my eyes, I saw that a crowd had formed in front of me. Someone politely asked me to move. I had no idea what I was doing wrong. I was simply standing in front of a pretty fountain.
I moved away, and observed that the congregants touched the water in the fountain and crossed themselves. Note to self: Blocking the holy water is another church no-no.
The service was about to begin, so I sat down and watched. It was a magical night, as enchanting as Christmas Eve with Brian’s family. I especially loved observing the children, adorned in their holiday finest. Rather than squirming and fussing, they were riveted. They, like me, knew that this night was special.
To my amazement, the painfully shy child sitting next to me came out of her shell. She started singing her heart out. She was even praying like a pro.
Beyond the music and pageantry, what moved me the most was being with hundreds of people who loved God. Maybe some were questioning His presence or feeling abandoned. But they showed up, and that’s half of life.
It was a stirring night for this wandering Jew who has traveled from east to west, from Left to Right. As the Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “This moment in time God has carved a place for you,” and sitting in the sanctuary, I felt that place.
Even though I didn’t know the right words, or the hymns, or how to pray, it didn’t matter. All the differences among people — race, class, politics, even religion — vanished. God, I realized, is the ultimate uniter.
And in a heartbeat, I understood why leaders from Marx to Mao try to keep people away from God, and why they always fail. I flashed to an image of those mothers who somehow find the superhuman strength to lift up a car and free their children.
On Christmas Eve, I learned that this same unstoppable power exists inside all of us, even someone like me. As Jesus himself taught, faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain.