Christmas Without Christ
I was barely 21 when I found out the change. Mother had sent me to see if I could buy some food somewhere. It was early evening. I walked the familiar streets without fear. I loved them, even then when they were dark (the electrical power was off in the city, due to the revolution).
Then I stumbled over something. And when I bent down to see what it was, it was a dead woman with a knife in her back, and blood all over the pavement. That was the beginning of the change on my streets.
Then the edict went out that anyone found worshipping God in any church could be arrested or shot on sight. And my streets became jungles to be crossed carefully, slowly, hiddenly, hugging the walls of buildings so as to melt with their shadows in the early morning when going to Mass.
As soon as the edict went out, church services became the centre of all life. How long would it be before there would be no Mass? People asked themselves that question, and the thought froze all Christian hearts. For what is life without Mass, without the sacraments? Men, women, and youth arose and went to Mass daily. So did I.
We all went. But we first blessed ourselves in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, because we all knew that maybe this was the last time we might walk the familiar yet now unfamiliar streets.
We walked as native people in America must have walked when stalking their prey - soft-footed, alert, listening for any loud footsteps. Only communists walked loudly through the fearsome streets. We walked in human fear, in trembling, but we had to go where we were going. To church! To Mass! Because without it, we would not be able to face another day of wondering, fearing that it would be our last day.
This is another fact about revolutions: they bring eternity into every hour of every day. You peel potatoes in your kitchen and-hark! There are heavy footsteps on the stairs. Are they for you? Or for those you love?
No-they passed your door. With a trembling hand, you go on peeling potatoes, listening, listening, and wondering about life and death. God is very near then. In fact, God alone matters, and so does the Mass.
So we went at dawn, like the Christians of old, softly, hugging walls, watching, now melting with the shadows, now moving, inch by inch, into a dark church.
One day, it happened! It happened in church. It was an old church with a cold stone floor - without lights, except for the tabernacle light and two slender candles. It happened right after the Consecration, while the priestís hands were still raised high to allow us all, who were living under a "sentence of death" as it were, to behold Him Who died for love of us, and to give us courage if the need arose, to try to die as gallantly for the love of Him.
White were the hands of the priest. White was the Host, shining white were the candles - dark and dim the church - when suddenly the side door opened with a bang, and rough voices shouted, "Stand still!" The priest froze with the Host still lifted high. We became statues of immobility lost in the dimness of the church. Soldiers! - for that is who they were. Red Army soldiers.
One of them slowly lifted his rifle and slowly took aim. One shot rang out. Only one. The priest quivered, swayed, and fell sideways. The consecrated Host rolled down, down the steps, onto the floor, coming to rest, still and white, on the dark floor by the altar railing - in two pieces.
Silence took over, only to be broken and shattered by the rhythmic steps of the hobnailed boots of the soldiers walking toward the tabernacle, then vaulting over the railing. Triumphantly their voices suddenly rang out while one of them crushed the consecrated Host under his heel: "There is no God! We have crushed him."
Silence wrapped up his voice and killed it. Silence. The silence of Golgotha entered the church. It hung - even like Christ on the cross - only to be broken again by the thin, reedy voice of an old, old man who spoke from the intense shadows of the church. "Father, forgive them, even if they know what they do."
Slowly, the old man arose. He was a patriarchal figure, with a long white beard and flowing hair. Reverently he gathered the crushed pieces of the consecrated Host. Slowly he bade us to come forward and to receive them in our last Communion. Maybe our viaticum. We did.
Then we got holy water and scrubbed the floor. And we stayed on, to pray in reparation. We buried the priest secretly. He was the last priest in town; there would be no more Mass, no sacraments.
The familiar streets were still filled with danger and death for us. We didnít mind them anymore, because we ourselves were filled with such desolation, a desolation that no one knows in countries where there are so many churches and so many priests.
All this happened just before Christmas. And so it was a Christmas without Christ in the tabernacle - without Mass - without Confession - without Communion.
Just the same, it was my most memorable Christmas. Since they had closed all the doors against His coming, He chose the humble stables of our pain-filled hearts in which to be born anew that strange, lonely, cold Christmas of the first year of the communist Russian Revolution in 1917.
Sometimes it seems to me to have been the most blessed Christmas of all because, from that day on, I knew that, when all the rest had been taken away from me, nothing mattered but his inner presence in my heart.
I wish - oh, how I wish - that I really could tell all this to the youth in North America. To so many of them, going to Mass on Sundays seems, at times, too dull and hard. Mass on Sunday? Oh, my friends, go to Mass every day - while you can!
Yes, we would have crawled on our knees that Christmas - through the strange and fearsome streets, filled with dangers and death - if only we could have participated in just one more Mass.
Thank God each day that, as yet, your most memorable Christmas is not without Christ in all the tabernacles of your many churches.
For more information about Catherine Dohertyís life and work see www.madonnahouse.org/doherty/