By Michael B. Lex
Quite unexpectedly, a ghost of Christmas Past stopped and tapped me on the shoulder. I was driving past Church of the Transfiguration at Sycamore and Mills streets. A fresh coating of snow had fallen upon the church grounds, creating a seasonal image. It served to fulfill a need in my soul for a “little Christmas right this very minute.”
In these past few weeks and months I have been deeply conflicted about the Catholic Church. Three priests from my current parish have been suspended due to abuse allegations. Despicable deeds and abhorrent cover-ups have shaken my faith in the leadership of the Catholic Church, from Buffalo to Rome. I have missed the Advent season as I have struggled with a heart that believes and a mind that can’t accept the wrongs perpetrated on the innocent.
Before me stood the church of my youth, the church of four generations on my maternal side. Although Transfiguration stands deteriorated and abandoned, memories of Christmases Past flooded my mind. Christmas Eve and Midnight Mass were the premier events of Polonia. They were the perfect combination of celebration and reverence.
Wigilia, the Christmas Eve dinner or celebration, rotated between my mother and her sisters. Although our dinner was never the traditional meatless repast, it was always delicious. Dinner was always preceded by the Oplatek or Christmas wafer. Family members gathered to break bread with each other while offering glad tidings, wishes for good health, fortune or reconciliation if needed.
As a child I did not understand why tears often mixed in with this tradition. As I have grown a little sadder, and a little older, it now all makes sense. Life is fleeting; holidays remind us of who is no longer at the table. Traditions long held begin to fade away. Favorite cookies are no longer made. Polish Christmas carols, the koledy, are no longer sung. In short order two generations of my family have vanished and my siblings and I are now the old guard.
After a gift exchange, expectations turned to Midnight Mass or the Pasterka, the Mass of the Shepherds. As altar boys, my brother and I were required to be at church by 11:30. Aside from the votive lights, the church was darkened. By 11:45 the pews began to fill in and the sounds of “Dzisiaj w Betlejem” (Today in Bethlehem) and “Wsrod Nocney Ciszy” (In the Midst of Nights Quiet) reverberated through church.
Just before midnight the bells of the church began to toll. They joined in chorus with those of Corpus Christi, St. Luke’s, St. Adalbert’s, and St. Stanislaus to fill Polonia’s night air. Then a procession to place the Christ child in the manger began and the darkness turned to light. Magnificent pine trees were lighted by the altar and a multitude of candles glowed throughout. The beautiful, joyous sound of “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” was sung from the heart and from the soul. Following Mass it was back home for a quick meal of sausage, placek and, of course, anise and almond cookies. We were exhausted and sleep came quickly.
It has been said the memories give us roses in winter. For me, memories are a “little angel sitting on my shoulder.” They are the quiet and irrepressible belief in hope, love and redemption. It is the knowledge that light dispels darkness, but more importantly that each of us carries that light, that gives me hope.
Michael B. Lex, of Clarence, graduated from Church of the Transfiguration School in 1972.