The shepherds and the angels and the wise men all came to see the newborn Jesus at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, and they all wore their masks.

The Nativity play performed by parish children at the start of the Christmas Eve Mass looked just a little different in a pandemic, but it was also true to the tradition. More than 400 people had filed into the Catholic cathedral as the early dusk began to fall on Friday.

“We’ve had quite the year,” the Rev. Seamus Griesbach said in greeting. “This is the fullest this church has been in a while.”

The children had scattered from the altar and sat with their families, silver tinsel halos and purple robes dotting the pews. The cathedral had been decorated with Christmas trees, sparkling with lights, and wreaths with trailing red bows. Hand sanitizer had been offered at the entrance along with song booklets. The congregation listened to readings from the Bible and then quieted for the pastor’s homily.

“There’s a very common way to structure a homily, especially for a major feast day like Christmas,” he began. “First, you tell a story or a joke, then the bad news, then the good news, and then you land the plane. But I’m no good at jokes, and we hear plenty of bad news all the time, so if it’s alright with you, this evening I’m skipping right to the good news.”

Faith Butera, center, looks down the center aisle at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland before she and other children participate in the nativity pageant before the start of the 4 p.m. Christmas Eve mass on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Griesbach paused. Dusk had fallen outside, and the last sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows.

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“People who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” he said, quoting from one of the readings. “Upon those who dwelt in a land of gloom, a light has shone.”

His message did not directly mention the pandemic or other stresses of this past year, but he alluded to dark and gloomy times. He said the life of Jesus can help people understand the larger plan that is unfolding even during these trials.

“This world is a passage,” he said. “Jesus helps us to understand why a good God would allow limitations and suffering and sin and death to afflict those he loves. It’s not because he wishes us harm or doesn’t care about us. He allows temptations and trials to afflict us because in some mysterious way, there is great good that can be brought about through adversity.”

Later in the Mass, the congregation prayed for the sick and the departed. By then, the sky was black outside. The Mass ended with “Joy to the World,” the triumphant organ notes filling the cavernous cathedral. People hugged and waved from across the pews and wished each other a merry Christmas. A shepherd posed for a photo in his costume. The ushers propped open the doors, so families and light could spill out into the dark evening.


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