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Aching to share, like the disciples


Candles lined the aisle of the church, tied with red-ribboned greenery, and the altar was a mass of poinsettias. Above us, from the choir loft, came the soft circling chords of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” In the pew I waited, nervous as a teenage girl hoping her date shows up.

Our parents were coming to our church for Christmas Eve. At least, they’d said they might. Why that made me so happy, I don’t know. We’ve both long accepted their antipathy to organized religion and, given the sort of organized religion that conditioned them, we understand it perfectly. We’re not -- I hope -- people who think everyone has to believe a certain way to be good or saved or happy. Yet when they hinted they might join us, I felt my heart lift.

I even confided the possibility to Margie, who was ushering, and she lit up, too, said she hoped they’d make it, the church had never looked prettier. Then Andrew left to fulfill liturgical duties, and I sat alone in our usual pew, scooted way to the middle to leave room, and trying not to turn around every time I heard a flurry of whispered hellos. Only when the processional hymn began did I allow myself to crook my neck, checking the back of the church for late arrivals.

They weren’t there.

Absurdly disappointed, I flipped to the hymn in time to add my off-key, distracted voice to the last verse. Then I started wondering why I cared so much. We’d seen them that afternoon, we’d see them tomorrow; they were probably tired. It would have been miserable anyway, I consoled myself; I’d have stewed through the readings, worrying that they were bored, and listened to the sermon on tenterhooks, hoping no red flags would be inadvertently raised.

Why did I want that anyway? Bossiness? An evangelical streak I’d never acknowledged? Buried insecurity, needing the validation of others to confirm that what I loved was indeed worthy? Plain green envy, after watching the sweet, perfect young couple in the second row hug their parents, who joined them at St. Mark’s every holiday?

Unwilling to think myself so petty, I shifted to a more flattering train of thought: Maybe this was how the disciples had felt, when they set out to spread the news of Jesus’ miraculous love. Maybe, instead of the self-righteous evangelism so common today, they’d simply burned with the desire to share their joy.

The first chord of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” interrupted the possibility, blaring loud and slightly off, and bringing me sudden relief. I’d used music to entice our parents; thank God they weren’t here, the voices were thin at this 5 p.m. service. Besides, there was perhaps a little too much of the ribboned greenery. My tasteful mother would have thought it overdone and gaudy.

Was that my real motive? Make them the audience for our performance, show them how wonderfully orchestrated our liturgies are, make them jealous of the religion they spurn? Sadly, it rang a lot truer than my disciples scenario.

But why did I still need them to appreciate this particular aspect of our lives, when I felt no need whatsoever to show them how smart and talented our friends are, how efficient we are at work, how great the movie was that we saw last night?

Because if they did appreciate it, came the answer, they’d feel what we felt, and we could all feel it together. Five people who love each other, locked together in a common recognition of beauty and profound truth.

I once dated a guy because he came up to the table where I was studying, smiled, and said, “I saw you at Mass this morning,” looking gently quizzical, as though we just might share a secret. He’d even raised his inflection slightly at the end, to make it a larger question. I’d thought immediately of my then-favorite poem, “The Portrait” by Robert Graves, in which the woman asks, “And you, my love? As unlike other men as I those other women?”

Romantic, yes; nobody’s ever at a weekday Mass for quite the same reasons. But I feel something of the same stirring just watching people line up for Communion, their hands folded, eyes reverent, all believing and wanting the same experience. It’s there again in the rumble of simultaneous response, “And also with you,” “Amen.”

Faith binds the faithful to each other; we do indeed become parts of a single body. There is no need to add that dimension to the immense, wholehearted love we already feel for our parents; we came from their bodies, for heaven’s sake, and what greater intimacy could there be, than the unconditional love between a good parent and a grateful child? I certainly feel no need for them to trot into church every week with us, sit-stand-kneel and fill the collection basket.

But at Christmas and Easter, when all the lesser lessons culminate in a burst of significance, and all the various parts of worship gather into a glorious liturgical fireworks, I ache to share the beauty, not only with my husband and our fellow churchgoers, but with everyone I love.

It’s a dangerous impulse; it puts your heart way out on a limb, and it requires a big compensating dose of tolerance and respect when people you love don’t want to share that feeling.

Maybe that’s not so different from what the disciples felt, after all.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative weekly newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2000