Christmas Eve is a time of peace and reflection. And then there is the 4 p.m. Christmas Eve vigil Mass.
It is the Super Bowl of the liturgical calendar. Convenient for families with kids, it is the most widely attended Mass for Christmas.
This Christmas Eve, the faithful face a fresh distraction:
The Bills vs. the Patriots.
As congregations start tackling "O Come, All Ye Faithful," the Buffalo Bills will have been tackling the New England Patriots for three hours. Surely, here and there in church, folks will be led into temptation to check the score on a smartphone.
"Or a watch," said Msgr. Patrick Keleher, who presides over the Newman Center on UB's North Campus. "Now, you've got those Apple watches. And it's Christmas time. They'll be Christmas presents."
Smartphone, watch or tablet, what's a priest to do if he sees someone checking the score?
"I smile and roll my eyes. A gentle smile," Keleher said.
And lo, he brings us tidings of great joy: If you're caught checking the score on Christmas Eve, your odds of being forgiven could rise depending on whether the celebrant of the Mass is a Bills fan. Those odds might be greater than you think.
Keleher recalled that the late Msgr. William Stanton, pastor of St. Ambrose Church in South Buffalo, was a die-hard Bills fan. When a game was going on, he would refer to it after the final dismissal, usually in Latin.
If the Bills were tanking, he might say, "Requiesce in pace," meaning rest in peace.
Stanton even knew the Latin for "Squish the Fish." Laughing as he reported that, Keleher made an attempt to resurrect the exact wording. Building on "pisces," Latin for fish, he came up with something like "Squishem piscem."
The Rev. Martin Moleski, a Jesuit who teaches at Canisius College, can also identify with the faithful whose attentions are divided.
"I am addicted to the Buffalo Bills," he declared ruefully.
"They've almost cured me, with the long drought — the bad years, when it was clear we were down and out and going nowhere. But now I am right back to caring. With the Patriots, of course, they are one of the greatest teams in football. They have the greatest coach, the greatest quarterback. You have to recognize excellence. And at the same time, the level of futility, it hurts. I'd like to be immune, to think oh, if I loved God, I wouldn't care. But I think I do love God, and yet I do care."
Moleski figures some folks will be checking their phones.
"In the modern age, cellphones are practically a part of their hands," he shrugged. "They don't even think about it."
But he doesn't see offenders, he said. Part of the reason is that he doesn't look.
"They can totally get away with it, and I would never notice," he said. "During the Mass, people are looking all over the place, right? It's not even necessarily checking cellphones. Some of them will be chewing gum. Some will be praying with their heads down. I deliberately try not to notice what people are doing. Except in the homily, I'll be looking at people, making eye contact, hoping to see signs of attention. The rest of the Mass, I want to leave people free."
In a perfect world, people would render unto the NFL what is the NFL's, and unto God what is God's. But reality being what it is, sports and spirituality are bound to clash. Keleher said that at the Newman Center, the biggest distraction is basketball.
"If there's a UB basketball game on Saturday afternoon, someone might whisper to me after Communion, 'We're ahead four points,' " Keleher admitted.
"We're great fans of the girls' basketball team. They're faithful members of our community," he said. He added that Mass at the Newman Center includes a spontaneous Prayer of the Faithful, inviting the congregation to speak up with intentions. Frequently, someone will chime in entreating God for a victory.
What if you're so preoccupied with a Bills miracle that you can't focus on the Christmas miracle?
Moleski, at Canisius, offers a final note of good news. You'll get another chance, he explained, because the solemnity of Christmas lasts eight days.
"There's this thing we call the octave. Essentially, it's the same solemnity for eight days. Sunday to Sunday, that's eight days. Eight days make a week. The Beatles had a song like that."
"The whole idea of the octave is to extend the celebration."
In other words, next weekend it still will be Christmas, and the Bills won't be playing the Patriots. The game will be behind us.
Meanwhile ... after wrestling with Google Translate, it seems that the Latin for "beat the Patriots" is "Vincere patrionae."
Let us pray.