The story of a beautiful Mass

st williams The story of a beautiful MassAfter all the austerity of Lent, I was really looking forward to experiencing the beauty of the Easter Mass this morning. I couldn’t wait to behold the visual feast of our breathtaking sanctuary filled with freshly cut white flowers, rich white and gold fabrics, and other decorations that symbolize a season of life and hope. I looked forward to settling into the comfort of our usual pew and listen to the choir proclaim joyful hymns that they’d undoubtedly perfected over weeks of practice.

But as we neared the church and policemen in orange vests waved us past the entrance, I realized that things weren’t going to go as planned. The huge parking lot was already at capacity, and we had to park a few blocks away. When we arrived at the church building, which has a capacity of almost 2,000, we saw signs that said that it was already full. We were directed to go to the overflow seating in the parish meeting hall.

We walked into the parish hall to see that it too was almost at capacity; we headed for some of the few remaining seats at the very front. As we walked down the aisle between rows of yellow plastic chairs I moaned to myself that this was not where I wanted to celebrate Easter. It’s a nice enough room as church meeting halls go, but it has all the ambiance of a high school gymnasium.

After we settled into our seats, however, I looked up at the front of the room and my mood immediately changed: under the large screen that showed a live broadcast of the Mass from the main sanctuary was a solid oak box with a gold key sticking out of the lock, a red glass candle on each side. It was a tabernacle. He was here.

I was caught off guard by how comforted I was that the Blessed Sacrament was here in the room with us. My memory flashed to a time when I was a toddler when I felt lost and scared at a new pre-school and my dad unexpectedly showed up to come get me. In an instant, I went from feeling vulnerable and disoriented to basking in the reassuring presence of my father, knowing that I was safe and everything would be okay. It was the same feeling today.

The Mass began, and it was immediately clear that the sound system left something to be desired. Over the speakers, the choir sounded like they were singing into empty coffee cans, and they were often drowned out by the sounds of fussing children or chairs screeching across the floor. Visually it wasn’t much better. The screen showing the Mass was washed out by the bright lights, and there were no decorations other than some rich silk sheets under the tabernacle. My own children were restless and I had to spend a lot of energy keeping them quiet since there was no cry room available.

And yet, tears filled my eyes at the beauty of it all.

It was a powerful sight to see so many people there at this one service. In my more cynical days I might have dryly noted that many of these people obviously don’t come every Sunday; I might have assumed it was just a meaningless cultural tradition for most of them. But today I recalled the hundreds (maybe thousands) of people I saw in our church last week to receive the Sacrament of Penance so that they would be properly prepared to receive the Lord in the Eucharist today. Many people had to wait for hours, some not getting home until near midnight. It says a lot that while the church was overflowing with people at the celebration of Easter, it was also overflowing with people confessing their sins the week before.

When we saw our priest approach the altar on the screen to begin the consecration, almost everyone got down on their knees on the hard stone floor. It was a gripping scene to see everyone from children to elderly adults on their knees, in their finest clothes, on a painfully unforgiving floor.

After the consecration, one of the Eucharistic ministers approached the tabernacle with deliberate grace. He bent down on one knee, his nice suit pants pressed onto the bare floor, and turned the key to unlock the tabernacle. The other Eucharistic ministers got down on their knees and bowed their heads as he carefully took out the ciborium.

The choir began singing I am the Bread of Life and I noticed that its melody was no longer a new sound for me; its comforting familiarity made me realize that I’m slowly leaving the “new convert” phase and entering a new season of faith. I walked up to the Eucharistic Minister, and when she placed the Body of Christ on my tongue I was moved to tears. I was in a gymnasium-like building with all sorts of abrasive noises echoing off the unadorned walls, yet Christ was there, and that was all that mattered to me. It was the first time I fully understood what J.R.R. Tolkien once said about the Mass in a letter to his son: the Eucharist is really all that matters; the externals are nice, but it is Christ who makes the Mass beautiful.

At the end of the service I dried my eyes as the choir began enthusiastically belting out Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. As we walked back down the aisle under the fluorescent lights, past the rows of cheap plastic chairs, the music sounding tinny over the speakers and overtired kids throughout the building yelling and crying over the din of metal chair legs scooting across the floor, I thought that it was one of the most beautiful Masses I’ve ever seen.

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  • brijeana

    Beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  • Anonymous

    I used to be kind of angry about how crowded our church gets on those big holidays, compared to how empty it is on, say, a weekday holy day of obligation. Or even Good Friday. There were lots of empty seats at the Mass of the Last Supper and the Good Friday Liturgy. I’ve moved past that, though, and now I accept that there are some people who are attracted enough to the Catholic church that they want to be there on those special days, but have not (yet) made the commitment to live the Catholic lifestyle fully. If Easter and Christmas are crowded, at least it’s a chance to pull them back in.

    For my part, I always attend the Easter Vigil. It is a much more beautiful and moving mass. Yes, it is difficult with small children, but we’ve always brought our son with us, and you do see little kids in the cry room, etc. Lots of them are sacked out in the pews. Some of them are running semi-wild in the atrium. My son brought a book to read. No biggie. It’s the celebration that matters, not having everything perfectly proper. There’s plenty of seating and I can enjoy mass with the core of very strong believers and also enjoy the initiation of all of the neophytes, and then stay in my PJ’s all day on Easter.

  • Damon

    Hi Jennifer, I was confirmed last night and had my first communion as well. Last nights service was beautiful. We go to the same church, btw. And I know what you mean about the new Parish Hall :) God bless! -Damon

  • ViolinMama

    This was a gorgeous read. And while I too would say I’d rather be in the main sanctuary, I’ve had experiences like this as well, and it is eye opening and humbling AND JOYOUS! It takes you back to the simplicity of the past, reminds me how at one time, Christians gathered in catacombs instead of a grand church (so we are really lucky!), and I’m reminded that truly it is the Eucharist that makes the Mass, not the sanctuary. I’m so glad the overflow room had the tabernacle! What a true gift!!! I loved your comparison to a lost child looking for its parent…..how beautiful.

    Thanks for writing this truly beautiful post. What a read this 2nd morning of Easter. You are keeping the hope alive for me!!

    Many prayers!

  • Kerath25

    Wonderfully said. Happy Easter and God Bless!

  • Anne (aussieannie)

    Another grace-filled post, as always…a blessed Easter to you and your family.

  • Jenan

    I love this! It reminds me of one sacrament meeting we had. (“Sacrament meeting” is what Mormons call the meeting where they take the bread and water.) We always have it in a chapel in one of our church buildings and it is considered really sacred and everyone is especially quiet during this time. Last year, when I was in Egypt for a study abroad, there was no chapel available and so we had it in a hotel restaurant. None of us were “dressed in our Sunday best” and it was very noisy because of the other people there and the cooks, etc. At first I was really unsure that this would work out and be a good meeting.

    But then the priests said the Sacrament prayers, and I, too was moved to tears. I too believe that Christ was there and that really is all that matters. Even though we were all in normal clothes, there was no podium or piano or organ, the sermons were hard to hear, and hymn books were scarce, it was one of the most spiritual meetings I’ve ever been in. I was so struck with emotion when I looked around at us, in jeans and t-shirts, in this hotel restaurant, with pita bread and bottled water for the sacrament, in such a humble situation, making do with what we had and worshiping God in the way we could.

  • Martina

    We have a common friend at St. William’s. I look forward to meeting you! What time did you go? We have four also and last weekend was our “dry run” on how early we needed to get to mass. We got there at 7:55 or so for the 8:30 a.m. mass, which worked out perfectly b/c people were still filing out so it *couldn’t* be crowded! We are front right, 9:30 a.m. Sunday folks. I go to the Pastor’s talks and will be helping out with the Catholics Coming Home program which I’m excited about.

    I hope to meet you soon! :D

  • Flexo

    Thanks be to God, for He is Risen!

    At the same time, I’m hesitant to ask, but why was not one of the priests dispatched to the parish hall to celebrate Mass there, rather than merely watching it on a TV screen?

    (especially since use of TV to overflow crowds is frowned upon)

  • Jim T.

    Our church was packed also, I was moved to tears. Thank you for sharing your story!

  • Roxane B. Salonen

    Jennifer, I was so happy upon discovering there were still a few seats left in the sanctuary of our church yesterday, despite an already full overflow section, and even though our family had to split in two. My 8-year-old daughter was in the choir and I would not have wanted to miss the chance to make eye contact with her. That said, and though I am a cradle Catholic, like you, I found Easter and all the preceding services so very moving this year, and I fought back tears many times. It tells me I’m in a place of growth, because the tears are of thanksgiving. If you feel like your years of being non-Catholic were any kind of waste, be assured now that I feel we are in a very similar place, despite the 30-plus years I have on you. Your earlier years were no more wasted than the many I’ve spent in half-light. Easter blessings to you!

  • Rae

    Beautiful. It has been hard for me be reminded so often that most people care more about tertiary aspects of Catholicism than they do the Eucharist. So it is so wonderful to read things like this. Thank God for the Eucharist!

  • Emily

    Beautifully stated, Jen. He is what makes ALL things beautiful, right?

  • Karen E.

    So lovely, Jennifer. Happy Easter!

  • Martha

    That is the down side of a gorgeous church — you get the people who only come once a year. Our wonderful (but ugly) parish had plenty of seats when we got there at 8:01 for the 8 am Mass on Easter. ;)

  • KC

    I couldn’t believe it when I saw this post and saw the picture of the church. I attend that church whenever I visit my parents who live 2 minutes away. We usually attend Easter mass there but decided this year to stay at our home parish. It’s a beautiful church.

    I love reading your blog. This post was beautiful.

  • Anonymous

    What a Love-filled post, Jennifer! It was my attendance at such a Mass in the parish hall that led me to being the RCIA Director. A 9-year journey as I returned to the Church of my young life. I ended up asking to be in charge of the decorations for the hall at Christmas and Easter. I now corral about 120 volunteers who assist me so that ‘even the hall’ is beautiful and welcoming. The Christmas volunteers I sign up during July (using ice cold lemonade and homemade Christmas sugar cookies to lure them to my sign up tables). Now even long-time parishioners forsake the ‘big church’ and come to the Hall for the ‘friendly Mass’.
    Glad that our Lord made Himself known to you in the breaking of the bread!
    Stefanie

  • Kristen

    Beautiful, Jennifer! Happy Easter to you and your family!!