At the risk of sounding entirely ungrateful, I will admit that I find traveling over the holidays difficult. After spending the Advent weeks preparing for Christmas, suddenly I am whisked from my spiritual practices and plunked into vacation mania. I know, I know — boo hoo, woe is me, the poor girl forced to spend Christmas in the Florida Keys with her family.
But on vacation, instead of rising early to read the Bible, I stay up too late and sleep in, waking groggily and shuffling feet across tile gritty with sand toward Mr. Coffee.
Rather than reading Advent devotions with the kids at dinnertime, I leave the Bible unopened on the nightstand when we jaunt to Barracuda Grill or No Name Pub for grilled grouper and conch fritters, margaritas and key lime pie.
We reel in snapper and pin fish from the sun-bleached dock. We kayak calm backwater as snowy egrets startle from the mangroves, legs dangling long and skinny as they take flight. We comb the shore for whelks and clam shells and whip gobs of drenched seaweed at each other’s backs, laughing as strips stick cold and salty to sun-warmed flesh.
None of these activities is bad, of course. In fact, they are all delightful, joyful. But still, all the focus on fun leaves me feeling spiritually unhinged. I forget that it’s Christmas. I forget what we are celebrating.
I forget about Jesus and God.
I know what you’re thinking — that I should be more fluid in my faith; that I don’t need to be so rigid in my spiritual practices; that I should rejoice and be glad; that God was there in the moist wind, in the flung seaweed and the conch fritters.
And you’re right.
But for now I find that I need these spiritual practices as touchstones, because it’s the rituals that keep my faith grounded. When I don’t practice, it’s easy for me to forget him. But when my head is focused on God, my heart is more open to him, too.
As I lay in bed on the morning of Christmas Eve, palm fronds rustling like a ticking roulette wheel, I prayed that God would take hold of me and redirect my attention to him. I prayed that I would remember, really remember, Christmas.
Later that day I stood in the last pew of a tiny Episcopalian church on Marathon Key. It was the early evening service, and less than 20 worshippers were in attendance.
“Only in the Keys would there be 17 people in church on Christmas Eve,” I harrumphed to myself. “What kind of pathetic Christmas Eve service is this anyway?”
The organist didn’t even show up until halfway through the service. Away in the Manger floated tinny and weak as our acapella voices accompanied the “procession” down the aisle toward the altar. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” I thought wearily. “It’s supposed to be joyful and exuberant, not empty and depressing.”
Later in the service the priest invited our small group to gather up close around the altar for communion.
My family filed out of the last pew and straggled forward. A handful of people stayed seated, so there were barely more than a dozen of us who walked toward the front of the church. I stepped onto the platform, so close to the cloth-covered altar that I could have touched the pristine cotton with my fingertips.
I’ve never been so close to the actual altar before. Sure I’ve kneeled at the rail, or read from the lectern, but I’ve never actually stood right next to the altar itself. But on Christmas Eve at St. Columba Episcopal Church on Marathon Key, I stood so close to the priest at the altar that I glimpsed her tan lines as her robed sleeves gaped open at the wrists. So close that I could see everything, every detail of the breaking and offering of the bread and wine.
The priest lifted the Eucharist and prayed Jesus’ words: “Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body, given for you.”
She lifted the chalice of wine and prayed again: “Take this, all of you, and drink it. This is my blood, given for you.”
As we prayed the Lord’s Prayer, I looked long at my family and those strangers gathered at the altar. My left hand rested on Noah’s shoulder. My right shoulder pressed against the stranger next to me. My sandals grazed the straw strewn around the nativity at my feet. My eyes rested on the priest, on the Eucharistic ministers to her right and left, on the family of five behind the altar, on my brother- and sister-in-law, my father-in-law, my nephew and niece, on Rowan and Brad just to my left, on the elderly woman standing one step behind.
And I felt, for just a moment, the depth of God’s love for all of us.
As I dipped the wafer into wine, placed it on my tongue and stepped away from the altar, I felt, for the first time ever, a Holy Communion.