I missed the first half of Mass on Christmas Eve because I’m an usher down at Our Lady of the Rosary. That means I wind up dealing with the busyness at the back of the church, and that means I got to talk to Ryan and hear his story of being a vet with cancer and three kids and an infant grandkid needing help to get through the two days before their morning meeting at St. Vincent de Paul on the 27th. He talked about living on lettuce sandwiches; he offered to stay through Mass; he offered to show proof of his cancer. His eyes and cheeks were so sunken he looked like a skull with papier-mâché stretched over it. I told him he didn’t have to show me proof — it was Christmas Eve, fer chrissakes — and found a working ATM at the Bolt Brewery bar on India and Grape.
I got back to Mass in time to see Mr. and Mrs. Elegant leave their pew immediately behind Intoxicated Bob and move to an open spot further back. On the one hand, it was hard to blame Mr. and Mrs. Elegant. They had come here for transcendence, Christmas Mass in the old style: Latin and incense, a gorgeous Italian crèche crowding the front corner, medieval polyphony and 17th-century carols floating down from the choir loft. Bob was the opposite of transcendence; he was an earthy, earthly distraction. His whole body trembled, and the motion threatened to shake his wide and frightened eyes from watery to weeping. He did not smell — not that I could tell, anyway — but the skin of his face had been both darkened and toughened by an uneasy life, and a smear of dirt and leaves clung to one side of his coat. He was not disruptive, but he was obviously compromised, and every now and then, he did something unexpected — say, raising his arms to heaven as we recited the Pater Noster. It may have been reverent, but it isn’t done. Not here.
On the other hand, there was the scene depicted in that gorgeous crèche: the author of all creation laid in an animal’s feeding trough. Father’s homily was all about the lessons in humility contained in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth. At one point, he mentioned that when the God of love came into the world, the smell of dung was most likely in the air. This was the God we were there to honor, who put on corruption so that we might become incorrupt.
Mr. and Mrs. Elegant left early; Bob stayed. After the people processed forward for Communion, I asked him if he was okay, and would he like to step outside so I could brush off his coat. He said yes to both. After I cleaned him up, he said, “I’m hanging in there,” and we embraced. All my natural sympathies were with Mr. and Mrs. Elegant. But of course, that wasn’t the point.