For more than a dozen years now, I've spent the days leading up to Christmas in search of a special gift. Not the kind you can buy at the mall or charge on your credit card but the gift of a traditional Midnight Mass. It goes back to my childhood, when I couldn't wait until I was old enough to attend Midnight Mass with my grandmother at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Denver.
I was 13 the first time I got to stay up and attend Midnight Mass with my grandmother. She lived only a few blocks away from the cathedral, which we walked to alone in a gritty urban neighborhood. But because it was 1960, neither of us worried for our safety. The pews were already filled by the time we arrived near midnight, as Catholics and even some non-Catholics crammed the gothic structure to overflowing.
I remember the smell of evergreen wreaths and incense and fresh hay from the empty creche on the altar. As the service commenced, the organ reverberated off of the stone walls as the choir, made up entirely of boys and men dressed in red cassocks and white surplices in honor of the Christmas season, marched in procession down the nave. There was a sense of majesty and mystery, deepened by the incantation of Latin syllables, whose sound was familiar, if sometimes unintelligible.
Those days are long gone, but that hasn't stopped me from searching for a Midnight Mass that will evoke at least some of those memories. My search has taken me to masses celebrated in Spanish in West Virginia; to an unheated 19th century country church in Maryland; even, by accident, to a break-away Catholic sect in suburban Washington -- it felt like I'd travelled back in time 50 years, though without the music I'd come in search of.
But so far, I've yet to find a Midnight Mass celebration that comes close to the beauty of those of my youth. This year, however, I'm hoping to step back in time, because I've moved back to Colorado. For the first time in more than 40 years, I will be attending Midnight Mass at the Cathedral -- now designated a Basilica -- of the Immaculate Conception in Denver again. It won't be the mass of my youth, but the new Liturgy recently adopted for the English-speaking world actually harkens back to the solemnity that was watered down in some of the Vatican II reforms.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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