I stood behind the altar, hands pressed together, glaring into the lights, seeing the faces of many of the fifteen thousand people gathered together to welcome the eruption of joy into the world that is the advent of the Christ. I waited. The servers rounded the massive altar, built over the tomb of St. Peter himself. From the other side of the altar, where the Vicar of Christ sat, smoke began to rise to heaven.
Then it was time. I rounded the altar, the place where centuries of Popes have celebrated the sacred mysteries. And then I was in front of the Holy Father himself. He was attentive, looking me in the eyes. His tired; mine nervous. I bowed, Iube, domne, benedicere — Father, give the blessing. He closed his eyes, bowed his head, and spoke words I did not hear. I saw his hand make the sign of the blessing, and I crossed myself. The Holy Father had just given a blessing intended only for me, that I might be a worthy herald of the Gospel.
About ten days after my ordination to the transitional diaconate, I was called by a priest from the Pontifical Sistine Chapel Choir requesting that I come to his office to audition for singing the Gospel as a Papal Deacon at one of his various public masses. The audition was nerve-wracking, but ultimately successful. I recall the wonder I felt as I watched Don Marcos write the word Natale next to my name — Christmas. Somehow, for some reason, I had been given the grace to be the Deacon of the Word for one of the various Christmas Masses.
When I was called again around December 15, I was overjoyed. I reported again to Don Marcos for a second audition and to discover which Mass I would be given. He listened again to several deacons, and then handed me the Gospel for Midnight Mass, instructing me to practice my pronunciation and to be sure to enunciate, because the echo in St. Peter’s Basilica is intense. That’s all there was to it.
I remember going home and emailing my family. Everyone was hoping I would be chosen for Christmas, but deep in the recesses of my mind, I was certain that it would not happen. Even after I had been chosen, a lingering doubt in my mind kept suggesting that I would receive a call saying they had replaced me with someone else.
But that call never came. So, on December 24 at 11a.m., I reported to the Papal Altar in St. Peter’s Basilica for practice. This is when I learned that I would be doing far more than just singing the Gospel. I would be functioning fully as Deacon of the Word — singing five different parts during the Mass, assisting at the altar, and receiving the sign of peace and Holy Communion from the hands of the Holy Father himself.
How is this possible? I have a great devotion to the mystery of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. One of the beautiful lines from that Gospel is the exclamation of Elizabeth when she sees Mary approaching her lodging in the hills outside of Jerusalem: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:42-43). I think Elizabeth was experiencing such an intensity of grace and of love that her natural reaction was awed disbelief — not in the sense of denying the truth, but in the sense that she was so overwhelmed by the superabundance of grace granted to her that she profoundly experienced her own unworthiness to receive such grace and responded with the only means she had: joyful praise.
Joy is the only adequate expression we have for the impossible. If we take a serious look at our lives, each of us has made our way down an impossible path. Who can look honestly at their lives and say that the grace they have been given can in any way be explained logically or that it could have been predicted. Faced with the impossible made possible, how can we make any adequate response if not with joy, which itself is a gift from God?
This is the joy of Christmas! Meditating on the Incarnation of our Lord is perhaps the most difficult thing for me to do all year. But this is because it is impossible to comprehend: the infinite Lord of the universe becoming limited and voluntarily assuming our human weakness. It’s too big for my mind. I’ve never really come up with great reflections on Christmas. I simply do not have the mental capacity.
But my heart does. My mind may not know the words, but my heart knows the joy.
As I stood at the Ambo proclaiming the Gospel, I came to a line that I had practiced dozens of times before that moment, but when I sang it to the world, I had an intensity of experience I could not have imagined:
Ecce enim evagelizo vobis gaudium magnum, quod erit omni populo; quia natus est vobis hodie Salvator, qui est Christus Dominus, in civitate David.
Behold, I announce to you a great joy, which will be for all people; today is born for you a Savior in the City of David, who is Christ the Lord.
I realized as I sang these words that I was announcing Christmas to the entire world. And I began to smile, because it is the most beautiful thing to consider, that somehow in the providence of God, the 2010th proclamation of Christmas was to come from the lips of a boy from Atlanta, Georgia, who having for most of his life put his trust only in himself and in none other, took a chance and climbed not so long ago into the Barque of Peter, and has found the waters turbulent but the company sublime.
The Holy Father gave a beautiful homily at the Mass of Christmas Eve that ends with these words:
“Cantare amantis est, says Saint Augustine: singing belongs to one who loves. Thus, down the centuries, the angels’ song has again and again become a song of love and joy, a song of those who love. At this hour, full of thankfulness, we join in the singing of all the centuries, singing that unites heaven and earth, angels and men.”
Truly, having the opportunity to sing the Gospel for the Mass of the Holy Father was a grace, but the greater grace is to be inserted into the event that makes all grace possible: the entry of the Christ child into the world.