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A different spin on sunday m.a.s.s.
God doesn't have much of a say at the table in the side room of Sean Kelly's Stone of Accord on a recent Sunday. The holiday spirit is alive and well, sure, but the Missoula Area Secular Society—blithely referred to as M.A.S.S.—has a simpler approach to Christmas. No scripture, no sermons, no long mornings in stiff pews; just good friends, intellectual conversation and a healthy dose of Irish soda bread.
The society's membership has grown considerably since summer 2008, and M.A.S.S. Outreach Coordinator Martha Thayer estimates their Sunday brunches average 20 to 25 people. Those folks range from atheists to agnostics to secular humanists to pastafarians. Most hail from fairly nonreligious backgrounds, but one, Milo Coladonato, attended seminary school before falling out of religion. There's truly no set standard for membership, provided you have an open mind.
While the pious of Missoula were busying themselves on a recent Sunday with the varied ins and outs of their own worship services, Beth Rowley spent nearly half an hour describing the process of carbon sequestration and the role it could play in restoring depleted soils on the Great Plains. Rowley, a M.A.S.S. member and soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, explained she's currently collecting data in Montana to establish a baseline for carbon content in local soil. Her fellow non-theists sat in rapt attention, taking the occasional stab at their home fries and eggs.
Conversation drifted to films about Charles Darwin, then to security protections for Facebook on open wireless networks. When asked about the society's views on Christmas—or any holiday, for that matter—Bill Clarke spoke up with some eloquence over the remains of his meal.
"It's just a festive time of year," he said, generating nods from the other members. "It's a perfect time to get together with family, to see friends. People are far more kind and generous this time of year."
Those at brunch agreed they like the hallmarks of the holidays. Many enjoy the traditional carols despite their Christian overtones; Thayer even plays viola in the Missoula Symphony Orchestra's annual holiday concert. The season has lost a good deal of its religious connotation, Clarke says, enough so that M.A.S.S. can simply appreciate the spirit of giving. Regardless of what they believe or don't, those with the society recognize the underlying importance of a celebration rooted in faith.
Living by faith
Mount Zion Lutheran Church
402 Strand Avenue
A white-haired man lights two blue candles on a recent Sunday morning inside this small church situated on Missoula's south side. The well-dressed attendees are reenacting a tradition carried out among Christians—and before them, pagans—for thousands of years.
Christians across multiple denominations light blue and pink candles to mark the season of Advent, or the four weeks prior to Christ's birthday. For four consecutive Sundays leading up to Dec. 25, Lutherans at Mount Zion will perform this candle-lighting ritual. It brings a reminder that despite cold and dark December days, light and warmth will come again.
The symbolism is clear for Mount Zion Pastor Justin Cloute. Despite the waning spirituality of modern times, Cloute tells his congregation that Christ will come again.
"In our day, many continue to reject Christ because of his unlikely appearance as savior...as another myth on the level of Santa or Rudolph" he says. "To them it all seems like foolishness. But we live by faith, not by sight."
The Advent ritual comforts Cloute. His church belongs to the theologically conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). The third largest Lutheran body in the United States, WELS forbids women from becoming pastors and classifies extramarital and homosexual sex as sins. It also adheres to the belief that God's word as represented in the Bible is law.
Modern culture has clearly drifted from Biblical mandates and traditional Christmas rituals, Cloute says. The holiday once marked a time for penance, introspection and giving back to the community. "We've kind of turned that upside down," he says. "As human beings, we so often turn things into self worship or self indulgence."
Cloute says that's the beauty of Advent—it offers a way to tap into fading tradition and, in turn, unearth the true reason for the season. He says it channels lessons of tolerance and giving among the communities in which we live.
"It's a way to express that love," Cloute says.
Five Valleys Church of Christ
4907 Blue Mountain Rd.
It's fitting that the congregation at Five Valleys Church of Christ kicks things off with the gospel song, "I Can't Keep it to Myself." The members make up an exuberant crew—clapping and snapping and amen-ing along with the music, emitting the kind of frenetic, building energy that suggests there might be a boiling point. What happens at the boiling point? Who knows? One thing's for sure, this isn't just a church dying to spread the message of God; it's also a disarmingly friendly church.
If you're a visitor, expect to meet anyone you happen to make eye contact with, because they want to meet you. That's pretty cool because the non-denominational Christian church is a visitor itself: It doesn't actually have its own building and is currently housed at the Emmanuel Baptist Church where minister Jake Jensen conducts the services on Sunday in the early evening.
Jensen preaches a little bit about saving and a little bit about temptation. He jokes with the congregation about the air hockey table he bought on Black Friday that came with a warranty.
"I like guarantees," he says. "I'm a sucker for warranties."
From there he segues into the idea of promises, during which he briefly references the way John Dashwood keeps the promise he made to his father on his deathbed in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.
More than anything, though, Jensen is a self-described history geek. For most of the hour-long service he delivers a Power Point presentation about the history of God's promises to humankind. He points to a timeline projected onto two screens on either side of the church stage, and explains that from 2000 B.C. to A.D. 1, everyone from Abraham to Moses, from David to Daniel, were promised things by God, and all of those promises were fulfilled. He spends extra time on the Great Flood, insisting that there were 500 different accounts of floods from different cultures across the world at the time—proof of a promise. In the end, it's the promises to come that he seems most excited about, which speaks to the church's very literal translation of the Bible. Heaven's streets are made of gold, the gates are pearly and the walls, jeweled.
"Heaven is going to be absolutely phenomenal," says Jensen. "And it's just around the corner."
The exuberance for eternal life after death and the concern for present-day temptations don't seem to dominate the mood, however. The final song is "Joy to the World," a Christmas song, and everybody's belting it out with spirit.
Harping back to Home Alone
St. Francis Xavier Parish
420 W. Pine Street
If you're an 8-year-old boy mistakenly left home alone on Christmas, and you want to pray for your family's return, and do it in an old, picturesque church fit for the movies, walk to Missoula's St. Francis Xavier Parish. The Catholic church, completed in 1892, seems quintessentially Christmas. More than that, it stands out as a cultural and artistic treasure, an example of Baroque architecture with a visual catechism that doesn't require a trip to Europe.
Those century-old paintings, by Brother Joseph Carignano and intended to depict Christian beliefs to a community far from the center of Christian worship, are striking when you walk into the church for the first time. The art is so steeped in history that the giant Advent wreath in the sanctuary appears out of place, if only for its newness. Also striking, to an infrequent churchgoer, at least, is the dead quiet. St. Francis Xavier is no New Age rock 'n' roll church. Before a recent Sunday evening mass, the second Sunday of Advent, worshippers walked in, genuflected, and silently slid into pews.
The church may be somber, but it's so not so stuffy as to feel culturally detached. Father Mark McGregor's sermon included a reference to "The Simpsons." He even did his best to speak in Marge Simpson's gravelly voice. He managed to then segue into a lesson from Mother Teresa of Calcutta: "People are often unreasonable, irrational and self-centered. Forgive them anyway...If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway..."
St. Francis Xavier's holiday services include the "Eight Days of Vespers," Dec. 17 through Dec. 23, at 8 p.m. When the third week of Advent begins, the church explains, "Our spirit of waiting and the anticipation of Christmas are crystallized by praying the 'O Antiphons' and lighting the rose candle—a symbol of joy—in the Advent wreath." The seven "O Antiphons" have been part of the Catholic church's liturgical prayer since the eighth or ninth centuries, expressing "the community's deep longing for the coming of the Messiah."
No matter your Messiah, a St. Francis Xavier holiday service is certainly worth attending if you haven't seen the inside of the church before. And it just might get you into the Christmas spirit—like only classic movies and singing choirs can do.