Christmas Without Christ – Part I

by Catherine Doherty

Catherine first told this story many years ago, but now that we’ve lived with over a year and a half of pandemic, with the deprivation of Mass, lockdowns, and uncertainty about the future, it speaks even more powerfully than it did then.

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Catherine was once asked about her most memorable Christmas. Her answer is told in the following story:

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 [Revolutions are terrible things.] Take it from me, who went through one of the most tragic revolutions of history—the communist one in Russia.

Revolutions are composed of tiny little things, which gather together like many little dark clouds to form a huge black one that blots out the sun and the moon and the stars. This leaves you utterly alone in a darkness so dark that you feel you would give your whole life for just one ray of sunshine.

Take streets for instance. Old familiar and beloved streets, that you walked all your life. Why yes, at this corner stood your mother, holding your hand to cross the intersection when you were starting kindergarten.

And here is the corner store where you bought candies with the hot dirty little pennies that you had clutched so carefully all the way from grade school.

And there is the familiar alley that you always took from high school, because it was a short cut, and because there was a big lilac bush that smelled so nice and made you think of spring and vacations.

And a little further was that puppy that you played with, and which now is a nice big woolly dog that still knows you and comes out sedately and slowly to greet you.

Would you believe that all these familiar streets, which you love and remember from almost babyhood, can change overnight into sinister frightening places where death stalks and life is cheap? Yes, that is just what happened after the communist revolution came to my streets in Petrograd.

I was barely 21 when I found out the change. Mother had sent me to see if I could buy some food somewhere.

It was early evening. I walked the familiar streets without fear. I loved them, even then when they were dark (the electrical power was off in the city, due to the revolution).

Then I stumbled over something. And when I bent down to see what it was, it was a dead woman with a knife in her back, and blood all over the pavement. That was the beginning of the change on my streets.

Then the edict went out that anyone found worshiping God in any church could be shot on sight or arrested. And my streets became jungles to be crossed carefully, slowly, hiddenly, hugging the walls of buildings so as to melt with their shadows in the early morning when going to Mass.

As soon as that edict went out, church services became the center of all life. How long would it be before there would be no Mass? People asked themselves that question, and the thought froze all Christian hearts. For what is life without Mass, without the sacraments? Men, women and youth arose and went to Mass daily. So did I.

We all went. But we first blessed ourselves in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, because we all knew that this might be the last time we would walk the familiar yet now unfamiliar streets. We walked as hunters do when stalking their prey—soft-footed, alert, listening for any loud footsteps.

Only communists walked loudly through the fearsome streets. We walked in human fear, in trembling, but we had to go where we were going. To Mass! To Church! Because, without it, we would not be able to face another day of wondering, fearing that it would be our last day.

This is another fact about revolutions: they bring eternity into every hour of every day. You peel potatoes in your kitchen and—hark! There are heavy footsteps on the stairs. Are they for you? Are the communist secret police coming to arrest you? Or those you love?

No—they passed your door.

With a trembling hand, you go on peeling potatoes, listening, listening, and wondering about life and death.

God is very near then. In fact, God alone matters, and so does the Mass.

So we went at dawn, like the Christians of old, softly, hugging walls, watching, now melting with the shadows, now moving, inch by inch, into a dark church.

To be continued in Part II on December 23, 2021