Monday, December 31, 2018

Just visiting

For a few hours I thought about going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. My wife was working, my cat was snoozing, I had no plans, and, having but one service at my own church on Christmas Eve (in a sanctuary large enough that there will never be reason for two), my Protestant self felt like maybe it needed a little more sanctified celebration. After the Silent Night with the candles comes Joy to the World, or O Come All ye Faithful, pealing forth at the stroke of the new day: the day itself. The preparation is over. The season of waiting has ended. Christmas has come.

It turns out they don't have a midnight mass at St. Paul's Cathedral in Pittsburgh. 10 p.m. is as late a start time as their flock wanted to stay up for, evidently. So this organist simply went home after the service ended at Third Presbyterian and waited for sleep to come. I stayed up until 1:30 anyhow; a little wired from all the sugar in the system, and the Christmas.

At noon the next day there was another mass (also at 10 a.m.). Catholics DO attend church on the day itself (and not just at midnight)--unlike Protestants, who are unobliged and generally uninterested, and as I was again free (this time both the cat and the spouse were sleeping), off I went.

I've been to St. Paul's for many organ recitals (mostly in summer), but I've never seen it as festive as for Christmas. Trees and poinsettias everywhere. And despite my concerns that people might be nowhere to be found (all in their own homes, with presents and family all day), there was quite a crowd. They didn't all look happy to be there; that was the part of the spiritual present I didn't receive. And the singing was just as lukewarm as I'd been led to believe by other Catholics about their brethren (at a midnight mass years ago that I was playing my wife was outed as a Methodist by someone there who said they could tell she wasn't Catholic because she was singing lustily). It reminded me somehow of those gigs I do at nursing homes where a few of the residents seem truly alive and interested and engaged, and the others, for whatever reasons of health or disposition, just aren't all there. That was also the case here. Maybe it is the case in heaven itself.

But the party was on, whether everyone's spirits accepted the invitation or not. The music was festive (brass and organ) and vigorous. And I was in a mirthful mood anyway. I also had occasion to be amused. Forgive me, relevant parties.

I am enough up on the latest, or at least reasonably recent, pontifical memos to know that the proper response to "the Lord be with you" is "and with your spirit"; however, some of the flock were still murmuring the old "and also with you" a half-a-dozen years later. Recalcitrance, perhaps?

There were a few Protestants in attendance. I know because at least one fellow nearby got caught out during the Lord's Prayer and forgot to stop after "deliver us from evil."

Speaking of delivering us from evil, there is still the old prayer to St. Michael, who is apparently quite the warrior, to deliver us from Satan, who lurks everywhere, and is very, very frightening. It is a very Medieval smelling petition, and involves my much more violence-friendly namesake, which is a strange sensation. It was said toward the end of the service...

which also included Silent Night. I had missed Midnight Mass, and imagined I would have an entirely different experience at noon the next day. I was wrong. The bulletins in the pews made it clear that all five of the masses, the three on Christmas Eve, and the two on Christmas Day, were to be identical. The only exception was the singing of Silent Night, absent only at noon on Christmas Day. But someone may have appealed to those in charge, (all the way to the Bishop?) because it was also included.

It feels a little odd to sing Silent Night at noon the next day, but I rolled with it. No candles, though. I appealed to the pastor's wife on the 24th to light my candle while I played the organ at my church, so I was not denied that experience. I even got to hold my candle while singing a phrase or two from the last verse which was partly unaccompanied (Christmas Eve surprise! You can do it, congregation!).

The Bishop delivered the homily, which was about what you expect it to have been about: the real reason for Christmas, and how all the rushing around and the materialism distract us from the point. I wonder if this sets up a great euphoria in some people, hearing the expected conventions delivered at the right time with the appropriate amount of restrained fervor. I only know that, as a creative soul, it is hard for me not to be a bit bored when I could have guessed at the entire contents of the homily in advance. But I am not typical.

Afterwards, of course, was the Eucharist. I have gotten pretty used to walking into strange buildings, and participating in services with congregations I am not a part of. I realize that there are many people who do not feel comfortable doing that, but during the year after my cancer when I was unemployed I visited a new church every week and got quite used to the procedure. On Christmas Day, there was more likely a variety of persons in attendance, including the aforementioned Protestant. I had decided not to go down front for the Eucharist on this occasion (to get a blessing) but it turned out there were several others who chose to do the same, including the lady in the same pew who seemed to know all the prayers very well--seemed to be in practice, in other words, but still didn't take the elements. I wonder why. I can guess, but I'll leave the individual stories, and reasons, to the people themselves.

The music was properly celebratory, often with brass and organ, including an enthusiastic (though hard to follow) introduction to Joy the World, which I did get to sing this year after all (our pastor left it off the list on Christmas Eve), and a lengthy concert before-ward which I missed most of because there was nothing on the website about its start time.

There seems to be, particularly in Catholicism, a sense of obligatory dispatch, or routine, the message being that "we do this everyday." Yet at the same time the calendar is thick with festivals and occasional periods of absence, bedecking the year with meaning, almost to the point where what is special can itself become routine. But it may be in the eyes and hearts of the parishioners themselves that ordinary time becomes extraordinary time. Some of those were obviously just there because their families made them come and were waiting to get home, others, simply jaded with many a Christmas celebration. And I could think of enough reason to be disappointing with a church that didn't live up to its founder's vision. But I still got a sense that there was something wonderful about this day and this moment in time, that Christmas had truly arrived. Perhaps it is only an invitation; we can let it gladden our hearts or not, as we choose. And no priest or parish can keep it from coming, or force its entry. But what they could do, which was to facilitate it, they did. The rest, as T. S. Eliot might say, is not our business.

Whatever combination of obligation and desire had led persons to the service that day, there was the old, familiar ritual waiting for them. And a sense of the special-ness of Christmas on top of it. The flowers, the Bishop, and the brass and organ music made sure to remind us of that. Was the verdict that of a duty dispatched, an ordinary event transformed, or perhaps an ordinary event that is never ordinary? I can't see into the hearts of the people there. I only know I felt uplifted, and went home a little bit changed.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I don't bite...mostly.