From cow palaces to cathedrals, Christians across the Baltimore region and Maryland gathered this weekend to celebrate the birth of Jesus with sermons about neighborly love, a welcome change after a year of partisan hatred fueled by a divisive national election.
Thousands of worshipers attended the Roman Catholic Church of the Nativity's Christmas Eve services at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium to listen to the Rev. Michael White's message about "grace and truth" during one of the largest night-before-Christmas celebrations in the state.
"Like the first Christmas, we're gathered in a barn," White said.
Hundreds of cars snaked along York Road to wait for parking at the fairgrounds. Parishioners streamed into the Cow Palace, which was transformed by dim lights and curtained pillars lit in green hues as the image of the pastor was projected on seven large television screens.
White's sermon focused on how Christians believe Jesus was born in the humble setting of a manger — surrounded by barn animals and shepherds — in part to show that anyone can access God's love.
"A shepherd's life was messy. They would have been judged as unfit for worship. It was this group that God chose," White said. "Grace is for all people."
"We all have a messy and busy life," said pastoral associate Tom Corcoran. "God helps us with our messes."
One of those messes has been the public discord driven by a divisive political season.
"There are people desiring more unity after all that division," Corcoran said, referring to the presidential election.
The Catholic Church itself reflected the national divide. An estimated 52 percent of Catholic voters cast ballots for Republican Donald J. Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton. While Trump's stance against abortion appealed to Catholics, Pope Francis took issue with the billionaire's call for a wall between the United States and Mexico.
But there are few religious holidays that bring Christians together more than Christmas.
Nearly 9,000 people were expected to attend Nativity's Christmas Eve celebrations at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday, which included the lighting of thousands of candles held by parishioners during the breaking of the bread for Holy Communion.
Just three miles down York Road, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori celebrated Mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Towson.
Lori's homily focused on reminding Christians that God is accessible to them through Jesus' humanity.
"There are no armed guards, no security, no need for an invitation," Lori said. "He is there for angels, shepherds and king alike. There was no room for him in the inn, but there's room for us in the stable."
He said Jesus wants people to turn to God for direction in good times and bad, and to rely on the church to unite them with others facing the same triumphs and challenges. "Not because [Jesus] imagined the members of his church would be perfect but because he knew we wouldn't be — becoming holy is messy work," Lori said.
Several parishioners said Christmas Eve Mass was a wonderful way to end such a chaotic year.
Seeing thousands file into the Cow Palace at the fairgrounds was overwhelming to Tim Jones of Hunt Valley, who joined the Church of the Nativity this year.
"I'm blown away," said Jones, who attended Mass with 11 family members. "It's a great way for family to get together and set everything else aside and to focus on what's most important: family."
Regina Franki, a longtime Nativity member, agreed.
"We hope that people will just stop and realize all of that [politics] is just stuff," Franki said. "Even though it's on the news all the time, it's not what it's all about. It was ugly there for a while.
"It is so nice to have a nice place for Christmas."