Almost every parish I know has a Jingle Bell Mass. It’s the one celebrated late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. It might also be referred to as the Christmas Vigil, the Family Friendly Mass, or in some places, the Children’s Mass. However, I’ve called it the Jingle Bell Mass ever since the time I walked over to the church and caught a lady (whom I had never seen before) roping off two entire pews with festive red ribbon, all the while grinning and humming Jingle Bells. When I asked her what she was doing, she matter-of-factly explained that she was saving seats for her family. It was three hours before Mass time.
This is the Mass where you try to cram eight hundred people into a church that seats four hundred and pray that the Fire Department doesn’t close you down. This is the Mass where you politely ask people to finish their cups of hot chocolate and cans of Redbull outside. This is the Mass filled with children who are sugar-high with excitement and adults who are dazed from holiday prep work, where teens are text-ing their friends who are sitting on the other side of the church—while on their way to Communion. This is the Mass attended by the famous bi-annually faithful. Most of all, this is the Mass that presents a pastoral opportunity like no other all year.
On this occasion the church is like an untouched field of snow. We have a chance to make an impression at this liturgy, a chance to either offer a reason to come back, or (at the very least) not feed anyone’s determination to stay away. Presbyters, cut your homilies. This isn’t the time to break out your seminary-trained brilliance but a chance to make a simple, clear point with a minimum of words. Trust that people have watched enough Hallmark specials to understand symbol. And please address yourself to the adults, not the kids. If you’ve done your job, both will understand you, but only those carrying a valid driver’s license will make the choice to return to your parish some other Sunday. Be sensitive, too, to the many faiths embraced by those who are sitting in front of you. Remember that some folks are there out of love for their families, not the church. Finally, do not say how you wish attendance could be this good every Sunday. You don’t. Plus, it won’t be guilt that brings people back.
Liturgy committees, hold off on the schmaltz. Leave the “Happy Birthday Cakes for Jesus” in the second-grade religious-education classrooms. Be careful with secular symbols. A hundred years ago, I was in a parish where a certain “visual meditation” would set my teeth on edge. After Communion, in dead silence, Santa Claus would slowly walk down the main aisle, carrying a huge sack. He would stop at the crêche, kneel for a moment, and then walk out the side door of the church. No matter what you’re thinking right now, trust me: it’s creepier in person. Plus, it confuses the kids. “What’s he doing here? Why isn’t he delivering toys somewhere in the world? My iPhone app says that Norad is tracking him over Australia right now.”
Congregations, give welcome to the strangers. I know that you occupy Pew 35 Left Side every week of the year and, at this Mass, an entire family from outside the parish has taken up residence there. Be gracious with your real estate, generous with your hospitality. Look for a seat somewhere else or slip into the sacristy (no one ever thinks of sitting there). Also, refrain from casting dirty looks at the mother of the crying baby. That small act of asceticism will go a long way toward establishing world peace. Try to do your part. When Mass is over, if you should see a candy cane stuck to a hymnal or a bulletin folded into an origami hat, please help to put things back in order. That would be most appreciated and, after all, you’re a “regular.” You own the place.
Not every parish can turn Christmas Mass at Midnight into an exquisite production, featuring a choir singing carols in four-part harmony and five languages. Not every parish can highlight Christmas Day with a trio of strings playing Mendelssohn as people gather. But every parish can turn their Jingle Bell Mass into an extraordinary opportunity for hospitality, where there is room for everyone, even Jesus.