A warm and rainy Christmas in Ohio. Highs in the mid-60s and the sun will set at 5:11pm.

It felt like somebody else’s dream, going to Midnight Mass last night. We dove down empty rain-slicked streets before entering a cathedral filled with incense, chanting, and a menacing organ that shuddered the stone walls. I’d never been to Midnight Mass before, although I have smudgy memories of spending the holidays with my Polish grandparents when I was very small. Of mysterious late-night comings and goings, their voices downstairs mixing with the smell of cabbage and kielbasa. I wonder what it would have been like to grow up in a world shaped by ritual.

The pews were crowded with an exceptional cross-section of humanity, all awake at this late hour, hoping to connect with something beyond themselves. Taking a seat in the back, I thought about Leonard Cohen’s comment that religion is the greatest form of art. Maybe I don’t need to feel like an interloper. Perhaps it’s okay if I admire Catholicism solely for its aesthetics, how it dramatizes grief and bends towards science fiction: the surgical ministrations of the priest and the fixation on eternal life and sexless creation; the swinging censer that fills the vault with smoke. The theatrical outfits and elaborate hats; the orchestrated calisthenics of kneeling, standing, and sitting while a man on a platform holds up a golden book. There’s a fascinating feedback loop in how speculative fiction borrows from the ancient rites of a faith that yearns for a future without death.

Most of all, I admired the humility of the Penitential Act: I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do. There was power in the sound of so many strangers chanting these words together, admitting we were screw-ups and wanted to be better. There was reassurance in knowing these words have been repeated for over two thousand years. I bowed my head and remembered my parents.

When the service ended, we wished each other Merry Christmas. “Peace be unto you,” we said. Then we scattered into the dark, where the streets were empty except for drunks and insomniacs, the penitent and devout. 

Rhos Male Voice Choir – Holy Night

Music from the Welsh Mines & Songs of Goodwill | 1957 | Bandcamp