Years ago, I lived within walking distance of my local parish. My next-door neighbor Jack, a melancholic fellow with a wry sense of humor, would sit on his front porch all year long, but especially on Sunday mornings.
“I’m just here to watch the show!” he’d peek over his newspaper, smiling as my husband and I wrangled our growing family of two, three, four … eventually seven sons on our shoulders and backs and into double strollers to walk to Mass.
“Why don’t you go to church too?” my oldest boy once asked Jack innocently. I turned red, but this kind neighbor shrugged his shoulders, “It’s complicated,” a shadow crossed his eyes, “but I’ll be there on Christmas.”
Over the years, Jack had shared some of the hardships he’d faced in his life. He was a Viet Nam veteran who recently helped his daughter escape an abusive marriage — trials that would test anyone’s faith. In time, I pieced together the suspicion that these trials played a part in what Jack meant when he told my son, “It’s complicated …” with regard to church.
Nevertheless, Jack did show up at Mass that next Christmas Eve, as he had the previous Easter (not that I was keeping track). Jack attended both times alone, so I doubt he was trying to please a religious relative or anyone else for that matter, including my son.
“I guess you could call me a Chri-Easter, ” Jack said bashfully, as he held open the door for me that evening.
I didn’t know how to respond — because I doubt Jack had any clue — as he stood in the snow-blown vestibule — that just by showing up, he was increasing my faith. Jack’s very presence that night called to me, saying: He just couldn’t stay away…
Jack smelled of Old Spice cologne and sat next to me during the vigil. He looked dashing, as did most of the other Chri-Easters that night. I’m sure plenty of them, perhaps even Jack himself, would have said they were there for tradition’s sake. That much like decorating a tree, or buying presents, “going to church” is high on the age-old holiday to-do list.
But that doesn’t make this tradition of Chri-Easters an empty one. If anything — the fact that they’re resigned to stay away all year but feel compelled to show up specifically when we’re dealing with the greatest mysteries of our faith sends a powerful message — even if they don’t realize it.
And I saw this message in Jack’s eyes that Christmas Eve as candles were passed around the parish. Slowly, a perfectly dark church filled with light. Jack sat beside me. He touched his bright flame to my empty wick. Suddenly, my candle burned bright. Together, with the rest of the congregation, we sang O Holy Night. And something about Jack’s soft, shaky voice helped me hear the song more clearly:
… Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the Soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks, a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees,
Oh, hear the angel voices
O night divine,
O night when Christ was born