This post is composed of excepts from Gloria Salavarria, who writes one of my favorite newsletters:
Seven years ago, I along with my stepdaughter Gretchen and her husband, Jim, attended Christmas Eve services at the St. Gregory’s Benedictine Abbey west of Three Rivers, Michigan, a town just a half hour’s drive north of Middlebury. The service was a midnight service with a lovely dinner for monks and their guests afterward.
I wrote about this for The Elkhart Truth, our local metropolitan newspaper. (See the story that follows.)
Although I am a Unitarian, I admired and respected the faith and the service of the monks in support of their beliefs. This isn’t the only story I’ve written about them but it is one that is appropriate for tonight.
For my Christian friends, may you all have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
For all of my friends, may we all enjoy peace in the year to come.
The holiday season begins on Christmas Eve at St. Gregory’s Abbey near Three Rivers, Michigan
In the quiet, gently rolling countryside of southern Michigan just west of Three Rivers there is a place where Christmas decorations do not go up until the day before Christmas.
It is St. Gregory’s Abbey, where seven Episcopalian monks dedicate themselves to following a Christmas tradition that predates shopping malls and Santa Claus by at least a millennium.
“It’s wonderful – baby Jesus and the manger scene but we’ve got God with us now,” said Brother Cuthbert (formerly known as Robertson Donehue) of the Order of St. Benedict. “There isn’t this separation anymore and that’s something for us to celebrate.”
Father William Forrest added, “You have a time (during Advent) for getting ready for Christmas that is not an early celebration of Christmas at all but a time for focusing on what it means for Christ to come to us.
“We’re working with not just the historical birth of Jesus in Bethlehem but also his spiritual presence in our lives. Likewise, it is a good time for spiritual housecleaning because we look toward his Second Coming, not just his First Coming.”
The monks don’t begin decorating for Christmas until the afternoon of Dec. 24.
“The guy who sets up the nativity scene will have the baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary, the shepherds and animals at the manger scene but the wise men will be somewhere else in the church,” said Father William. “With each day the three wise men creep closer and closer, traveling through the church until they arrive at the manger on Jan. 6, which is when the Episcopal Church celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany.”
Christmas begins with a special “midnight” matins and mass service that starts at 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve. The public is invited to attend and to stay afterward for a small party the monks have in their refectory (dining hall).
“Since we don’t have children to accommodate, we can keep the older tradition but, as we get older, midnight gets later every year,” Father William said ruefully.
The monks celebrate Christmas Day as a family by remaining at the monastery rather than going home to be with their birth families. The guest house also is closed for the day.
After the Eucharist service on Christmas morning, the monks are freed from their vows of silence to greet each other at breakfast and to unwrap presents.