First impressions make all the difference.
Over the past twenty years, I’ve lived in Baku, Azerbaijan, Kiev, Ukraine, in Tahoe, Fort Lauderdale, Whitefish, Evergreen and now, Breckenridge. In each location, the first place I sought out was the local Catholic church.
I looked forward to attending Mass knowing I would immediately feel at home as I experienced the familiar beauty of Communion.
Whether I felt welcome could be determined by a warm greeting. If you’ve been a member of your neighborhood church for decades, you might doubt the impact you can have.
But imagine for a moment that you are standing in front of the manger. Notice Saint Joseph kneeling next to his beloved wife. Then follow his gaze to Mary holding our Savior, who on this cold winter night is just a baby. She looks lovingly at this precious child she knows is destined to save the world.
And then she looks at you. Her eyes ask the question: “Will you open your heart to help my Son? Will you welcome the stranger sitting next to you so they can discover the love and joy that you have found in Jesus’ Church?”
On a dark and snowy Christmas Eve in Evergreen, Colorado, My 85-year-old mother and I had just moved from Florida. We were very excited to join the community but we didn’t know a single person.
When we arrived at Christ the King Church for Mass we were not only late, we’d entered through the side entrance, right next to the altar, just as the priest was reading the gospel.
The church was packed to the choir loft rafters. We hurriedly slid into the nearest pew, still spinning with unfamiliarity and embarrassment at being late.
After the homily, the man sitting next to us smiled and said hello. I explained that we were new, and he responded by welcoming Mom and I and assuring us that we would love our new church, that it was filled with newcomers and long-time residents. And then he wished us a very merry Christmas.
It was one simple conversation that occurred seven years ago. I don’t remember the man’s name, only how welcome he made us feel on that wintery night.
During this Advent and Christmas, our churches will be crowded with unfamiliar faces, some will be on holiday from other states, others live a few streets away.
You’ve spent the day shopping in crowded malls and battling crowded highways to get to church, so the last thing you want to see is a stranger sitting in your favorite pew. You might even be tempted to grumble as you slide in next to them.
But as one of those strangers, might I ask you a favor?
Say hello to me. Welcome me to church, ask my name, shake my hand, and at the end of service tell me you hope you’ll see me next week. If you’re feeling festive, invite me to join you and the other parishioners for coffee and donuts in the church kitchen.
The crowded churches we face at Christmas feel like a nuisance. But I believe they are filled with people who have been called by Jesus Christ, Himself!
They might not know it was Jesus, only they felt a faint tugging on their heart, on their sleeve by a child, or nagged into going by a spouse or parent.
Don’t be fooled by their sullen gaze. They have been called to witness and celebrate the birth of Jesus, by no less than God, who is gently reaching out to them.
They might come once a year, but this annual visit is fueled by a desire to meet Jesus, not only in the Eucharist but in each of us.
That’s what happened in the church I now call home.
Barb is the quintessential grandma, with a smile that brightens the heart of everyone she encounters as one of the greeters at St. Mary’s in Breckenridge.
When I began attending Mass at St. Mary’s, I would slip in and out of church without saying a word. Finally, Barb stopped me, said hello, introduced herself and gave me a hug of welcome. Every week after that she did the same.
Because of Barb, I felt welcome in my new church. I lingered after Mass to meet other parishioners, began attending Adoration on Thursday’s, and recently I become a Lector.
One person can make all the difference. The smile we share, our warm greeting, might be the only one they receive that day.
When we greet a stranger during Mass, we become the hands and heart of Jesus welcoming his beloved to His Church.
Jesus asks us to use this Christmas to share our love for Him and for our church and faith. He’s done hard part, bringing them to church. All Jesus asks of us, is that we share the love He shared with us when we were strangers.
Will you share the love of Jesus and welcome a newcomer to your church this Christmas?