The year 1985 had been the worst of my life. My fairy-tale world had, once again, imploded when my second husband decided he really did want to leave me for the other woman. He had left, waffled, come back and left again. This time I was the one who said it was for good. No more turning back.
Faced with the first Christmas season in seven years without “Dad,” I was in no mood for “making” Christmas for my 14-year-old. Hardly. I was fighting off frequent thoughts of suicide, desperately flailing within my depression to get a foothold, climb out, be a mom.
I hadn’t thought about the Christ part of the holiday in many moons. My husband had no religious upbringing to speak of and I had disavowed my Catholicism and all other forms of religion while I was in college. My first wedding had been a Catholic ceremony, but that was mostly because I wanted a church setting. Seemed more romantic, somehow. But the second one – this one that had just ended – had been in a hotel ballroom with a justice of the peace officiating.
Had I been alone, without a child to protect and nurture, I probably wouldn’t have been writing this post today. I would have been dead, more than likely. But I wasn’t alone, and I loved my boy more than the release from agony my death would bring. I couldn’t bear the vision I had of his devastation.
“How would you feel about going to a midnight mass this Christmas?” I asked him over dinner one evening.
His eyebrows shot up and he sat that way for a bit.
“You mean church?”
“Yes, church!” I laughed a little and startled myself. That hadn’t been happening much those days.
“We’ve never been to church. I don’t even know...what would happen there? Will it take long?”
Again a smile flirted with my face. The last time he’d been to a church for any reason was to attend his paternal grandfather’s funeral, when he was only 5.
It was one of those Christmas Eve nights that couldn’t have been more perfect, at least for northern California. Cloudless and coldish. Stars dancing the cha-cha in a jet black December sky, with the Berkeley hills looming in the distance like big licorice marshmallows.
The church was not far from our house, but I had never entered it. When my son and I approached the entrance, a warm and golden glow drifted out the open doors like the fog on the San Francisco Bay Bridge does every morning. The sanctuary was ablaze in modern lighting and candlelight, with dozens of huge poinsettia plants skirting the foot of the altars. The very air in the church seemed somehow effervescent with mood.
As we strolled down the center aisle to find a pew, I felt a blissful peace descend from my head down to the soles of my feet. The large choir of neighbors – some familiar, some not – was singing hymns familiar to all Christians, regardless of sect. And the delightful scent of live Christmas trees filled my nose.
It was at this midnight mass of 1985 that I finally understood the role that religion plays for humanity. No, I can’t say I still believed that Jesus Christ was present on the altar in the form of the Holy Eucharist. I can’t say I was tempted to renew my commitment to the Catholic or any other church. But for that hour, on a special evening of a terrible year I felt at peace. I allowed myself to breathe and to begin to see a future for myself and for this vulnerable young man. I experienced the virtue I had found so difficult to understand as a child – Hope.
Wherever we go to seek it, there needs to be a chance to be still, clear our heads of toxic thoughts and brokenness and to exist for an hour outside ourselves in order to restore the fuel of our mortal existence. That fuel is Hope.