The purpose of the Advent season is to arouse within ourselves the same spirit of longing the many holy souls of the Old Testament had in their hearts for the coming of the promised Redeemer.
The word Advent comes from the Latin “adventus Domini, the coming of the Lord.” There are three comings of Christ the season of Advent is meant to prepare us for. The first advent of Christ was in the flesh at the Incarnation. His second advent will be at the end of the age when He will come in judgment. The third is by means of grace in this present intermediate age between His first coming in lowliness at Bethlehem and His second coming in glory on the Last Day.
Christ comes to us in the here and now in grace in many and varied ways but chiefly through the Mass. By the end of Advent, we should be well prepared to recognize the Lord’s coming to us in grace, especially at the Christmas Mass. Every celebration of the Eucharist is like Christmas. Christ is born anew on the altar when the bread and wine become His Body and Blood and He is spiritually born within us when we receive Him in Holy Communion.
A century and a half ago in New York’s Hudson Valley, a struggling parish embodied this Advent spirit. After many years of trial, what the parishioners desired most was to have their first Christmas Mass as a community in their newly built church. More than anything else, what they wanted for Christmas was the Lord’s coming in grace. When a snowstorm threatened to cancel their first Christmas Mass, God rewarded their Advent longing with a miracle.
Goshen is a small but beautiful village. It was settled in 1714 and named for the biblical land where the Hebrews resided in Egypt before the Exodus. Over the next hundred years its population steadily grew with an influx of Irish-Catholic immigrants. Because of its central location and proximity to other towns, New York’s bishop, John Dubois, established a mission there in 1820. A priest from St. Peter’s on Barclay Street in lower Manhattan would come to the mission roughly every four-to-six weeks. St. Peter’s was established in 1785 and is the oldest parish in New York state. The priests there would have to travel 65 miles by boat up the Hudson River to Newburgh, and then another 25 miles by horseback to Goshen. The priest would stay for a few days offering Mass, hearing confessions and anointing the sick before returning again.
The population of the mission grew enough by 1837 to warrant being elevated to a parish but the faithful of the region were still without a proper church or a resident pastor.
An Episcopalian named George Wickham owned much of the land in Goshen. He sold a piece of land in 1844 called Fiddler’s Green to the Catholic Diocese of New York for only a dollar—probably at the bidding of his Irish born wife, Bridget. The piece of land was renamed St. John’s Place by the parishioners who decided to name their new parish church after the evangelist and disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23).
They quickly got to work building their new spiritual home and by 1847 the job was done. They finally had a real church to pray in and a worthy dwelling place for their Eucharistic Lord in the tabernacle. The only problem was they still had no resident pastor and were forced to continue to rely on the infrequent visits of the circuit priests from Manhattan.
Twenty-seven years had passed since their Catholic community was declared a mission. Ten years had passed since they were elevated to the rank of a parish. In all that time, the villagers of Goshen never had the joy of a Christmas Mass. Now with their church completed, this is what they wanted the most.
They made all necessary arrangements well in advance to ensure a priest would be sent. All was ready, and then came the snow.
The story of Goshen’s first Christmas Mass is recounted by T.J.V. Cullen in his 1962 book St. John the Evangelist: A House for Worship in Goshen, N.Y.:
The First Christmas Mass
This writer was a small boy at the Christmas time services of St. John’s in the year 1900. James Donovan, for years a Trustee of the church and father of the present Trustee Joseph C. Donovan, told us the Christmas story of the first Mass in old St. John’s in 1847. He said it was told him by Patrick Cullen, whose post as trustee was taken by Mr. Donovan.
The days were hard for men of Irish blood over the world. On the green land, once happy and prosperous, a hunger and death-dealing potato famine had broken. The tyrant in England was offering no relief. The English indeed had tried and imprisoned their glorious leader, Daniel O’Connell, after he had held spellbound a half million people for four hours with his oratory on Taras Hill.
In America the Irish workers were getting little money for long hours. They had little money to send to the “old country” and little time for play. Their only outlet was their church. In Goshen they worked with inspired zeal to have their priest say the first Mass on Christmas day in 1847. The altar boys were trained and knew the Latin responses letter perfect, even by the first of December. The choir was trained to the last high “C” of the soprano. The organ was in tune. By the 20th of December everything was in readiness. Folks as far away as Suffern and Port Jervis had made their plans to make the day a memorable one and a real holiday.
On the 23rd of December it started to snow and it snowed all day on the 24th. The wind had risen and there were drifts over a man’s head. Arrangements had long been made for a priest to come up the Hudson and over from Newburgh to say the historic Mass, and now the snow. Travel was almost impossible even from the nearby farms. Communication with New York was out of the question.
Late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve some of the village folk thought that they might go out to meet him. Perhaps the snow was only deep in Goshen. Using four horses they went as far as Johnson’s Corners. They could get no farther. They had to turn back. They were sure that no horseman could cross the country through the storm from the Hudson, if, indeed, sailing on the River was possible. One can picture the disappointment in every Catholic heart as all hope for midnight Mass seemed lost in the snow-drifts.
A Priest at Midnight—Robed for Mass
After consultation among the parish trustees and the other leaders, it was decided to have prayers in the church at midnight. The choir, the altar boys, the parishioners, and all possible were alerted and asked to attend prayers to honor the Birthday of their Lord. At near mid-night the church was filled to near capacity. The organist struck the opening chords of “Adeste Fideles” and the choir joined in the hymn. Now the congregation was in stunned astonishment. The door of the sacristy opened and a priest came to the center of the altar. He announced that before saying Mass, he would hear the confessions of those who desired. Some few accepted his offer. Many others were too excited to go to the confession box. The altar boys were hastened to the sacristy for cassocks and surplices.
Mass began. Everyone in the church was in a tumult of joy. After Holy Communion, and Mass was ended, the final prayers were recited, and the choir completed its last Christmas hymn, the celebrant left the altar with his attendants. The trustees and as many others as could crowd in, eager to hear how the priest managed to reach Goshen, waited for the altar boys to arrange the altar cloths and put out the candles. Then they followed the boys to the sacristy. There was no priest, no trace of where he went or how he came. Inquiry in later days at St. Peter’s brought the information that owing to the weather no priest could attempt to keep his appointment at St. John’s.
Those who had been present were so elated that taunts about Irish imaginations and superstitions did not trouble them. They were silent, content with their faith in God and His charity. They made no effort to publicize this Spiritual Visitation.
How can we explain this charming story? Who was the mysterious celebrant of the Mass?
It couldn’t have been an angel, as only a priest can absolve sins and confect the Eucharist. What seems most fitting, for those who don’t dismiss the story as a result of “Irish imaginations and superstitions,” is that it was St. John, the parish’s patron, who was sent by God to celebrate Goshen’s first Christmas Mass.
Like the other apostles, St. John was raised to the fullness of the priesthood at the Last Supper. He was a priest and bishop who offered the Mass for the faithful of his local see in Ephesus. He was also a theologian who famously wrote of the Christmas mystery in the opening chapter of his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:1, 14).
Like the good people of Goshen a century and a half ago, we should have the Advent spirit of earnestly longing for God’s coming into our lives through the graces of the Mass. This should especially be true of the Christmas Mass.
Christmas means, of course, “Christ’s Mass.” There is no better or more fitting way to honor the birth of the Lord than at the Mass when He comes to us in grace born anew on the altar in the Eucharist. At the altar He is truly our “Emmanuel, God with us.”
With this faith may we be as eager as the people of Goshen were to answer the clarion call of the Christmas season: Venite adoremus Dominum, Come let us adore the Lord!”
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