Growing up in an Irish-Catholic suburb south of Boston, I went to church 60 days out of the year: 52 Saturday or Sunday masses, seven holy days of obligation, and Thanksgiving, which was recommend by the church but not required, hence, we attended.
Although I enjoyed some aspects of the church community, such as our youth group “Gong Show” and ski trips to Vermont, I never liked going to church. The service was boring and sometimes frightening. I especially remember one sweltering 100-degree day in July, when our ancient pastor, Monsignor Sullivan, stood up to deliver his usual lengthy sermon. “If you think it’s hot in here, “ he snarled at the congregation, “then wait until you experience HELL!” Then he sat down, as we trembled, aware of our sin and our guilt in hoping for an early exit from the service.
By the time I was a teenager, the Monsignor had retired and was replaced by a series of kinder, gentler priests, but I never felt uplifted in going to church. Instead, my spirit felt oppressed. Over the years, I have tried different parishes and churches, but I haven’t been a regular church-goer for many years. Sometimes feel that I SHOULD go to the church, for the sake of my son, but I really don’t want to. I’ve told my son that belonging to a church is a good thing to do, but I just can’t quite bring myself to do it as I am ‘churched out’ from my childhood.
Still, I always go to church on Christmas Eve. Even if I’m not quite sure where I stand on the miraculous events of Christmas, I want my son to understand that Christmas exists for a reason apart from great deals at Best Buy.
For several years now, my family and I have been attending Christmas Eve service at the First Congregational Church in Kittery Point. Catholicism is so deeply engrained in my mental fiber that I’m not entirely at home in this austere Puritan building, built in 1730 by descendants of early Puritan migrants. Where is the body of Christ, hanging on the cross? The statues of Mary and Joseph? The 13 Stations of the Cross depicting Christ’s suffering as he walked towards his death?
But the Lord’s Prayer is the same prayer I recited at my childhood Catholic church. We sing “Joy to the World” and other familiar hymns. The Christmas Eve service is family-oriented and we see many friends and acquaintances. The sermon is both short and uplifting.
I especially like going to the First Congregational Church because the church is almost 300 years old. As an entity, the church was organized in 1714, and the 1730 building is the oldest surviving continuously used church building in Maine. (Knowing this, I get a little nervous on Christmas Eve when children and adults alike walk to the altar to light candles).
In this church, 18th century minister Reverend John Newmarch offered comfort at funerals for too many children when diphtheria struck in 1735 and he provided theological reassurance to those anxious souls who didn’t feel the spirit move them during the Great Awakening. It’s likely that the great itinerant preacher George Whitefield spoke from the pulpit. During the Revolution, Loyalists and Patriots walked the aisles and prayed together on many Sabbaths. Later, the morality of slavery was debated and prayers were offered for President Lincoln. The church bells tolled to mark the end of two world wars. In the mid-19th century, once the Puritans/Congregationalists got over their aversion to Christmas, congregants gathered to celebrate Christmas, just as they will on this year.
Maybe someday, when I go to church on Christmas Eve, I’ll feel more connected to a sense of faith. But for now, walking in the footsteps of the churchgoers who came before me feels like a sort of faith, maybe a faith in humanity and its ability to endure, and to keep an institution like this antique church up and running for almost three centuries. The world is often an ugly place, then and now. But on Christmas Eve, the bells still toll. The churchgoers sing the songs. The children light the candles.