LAST Christmas was a first for me.
At that time, I was living in Rome and studying at the Gregorian University, so, as that very special season approached, I found myself far from home.
I faced a dilemma.
It was technically possible for me to return home for Christmas, but the long distance, the high cost and the fact that I had exams to prepare for and a thesis to write, meant that it was a practical impossibility.
I decided, regretfully, that I could not join my family, though I struggled with myself over the possibility of returning home, right up until the point it became an actual impossibility.
It’s worth noting, that it was not a sense of obligation which made it difficult for me to remain in Italy over the Christmas break.
No one expected me to return home, and everyone understood that it was not practical.
I struggled, not because I was failing to fulfil an obligation nor even an expectation, but because I was drawn by love.
It was love for my family and friends which led me to desire an experience of communion with them that Christmas.
One of the great benefits of living in our times is that the use of technology has greatly enhanced the possibility of regular contact with distant family members and friends.
During the course of my studies I could connect over the internet and not only hear the voice of my loved ones, but even see them with video chat.
This possibility was of course taken up and was a great consolation on that Christmas Day.
I was able to connect with my family, via video, just at the moment my nephews and nieces were opening their presents.
In doing so, I was able to share in the joy of that experience in a very real way.
It was a great thing and a possibility that I greatly appreciated and enjoyed.
I relate the above story as a way of leading us to a parallel observation.
Over the past months many have taken up the possibility of participating in the Mass, streamed over the internet.
While there has been Mass broadcast on the television for many years, the ability to stream Mass, has meant that people have been able to stay connected with their local parishes (or view the Mass, streamed from them Cathedral), which would not have been possible in past years.
I have no doubt that this has provided a great consolation to many.
I have heard people comment on how much they have appreciated the possibility of participating in this way.
I have no doubt that for most who have regularly attended Mass at their local parishes, they are only too eager to be able to once again attend in person, something which is now becoming more of a possibility as the Covid-19 restrictions are eased.
But perhaps the thought has crossed the mind of more than a few, that participating in the Mass from home is very convenient and it is still a good experience, of faith and prayer, of hearing the Word of God, and of remembering the life, death and resurrection of Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist.
That being the case, we might well ask – why go to the effort of attending Mass at a physical church, when the experience can be good, even from the comfort of home?
There are many good theological responses to that question, of which I will name just a few.
When in scripture we read the word ‘church’ – it is a translation of the greek word ekklesia, meaning to ‘be called together’.
The gathering together as church, has its origins in the very actions of Christ, who gathered his own disciples and formed them into a community of missionary believers.
It is the nature of the Church to be a people called from the world, to assemble and gather together, to worship God, not only as individuals, but as a community.
Then there is our faith in the real presence of Christ, a presence we are invited to participate in most intimately through the reception of Holy Communion.
Finally, the Church points us to God, who in His very nature exists as a community of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The invitation to be the Church, is an invitation to share in that communitarian love of the Triune God – love experienced in community.
There is one particular reason however, that speaks to me as to the importance of gathering once again for the celebration of Mass.
It is a more personal reason.
Despite how much I enjoyed connecting with my family over the internet last year, at Christmas, when Christmas Day roles around once again, I will not hesitate to jump in my car and visit my family.
Not because I am obliged to, not because it is expected, but because I am drawn by love.
Fr Michael Grace is the parish priest of Indooroopilly.