Saturday, December 26, 2009
Midnight Mass at St Michael and All Angels Observatory, 2009
There is something extremely peculiar about attending Mass on Christmas Eve. It has, of course, the strongest overtones of pagan ritual - which is historically what Christianity simply usurped. Dead of night. Phallic Christmas Trees. Should be the winter solstice, but we live in the south down here. Celebration of new birth etc
So, to see the priest bearing a tiny (what was it? porcelain? alabaster? plastic?) figurine of baby Jesus on a pillow, (looking from the distance I was at, for all the world like a foetus), it cannot fail to make one think about things like that.
As usual at St Michael's, the music was thrilling. I was glad to say the familiar and do the comforting. I breathed in the smoke and I knelt for the incarnation, as is my habit, Sunday by Sunday. And I faced, afresh, the strangeness - the real peculiarity of a human God. A God who might be, as one songwriter put it, "a stranger on a bus, trying to make his way home". The absurdity of the eternal constrained by the temporal.
And, from that temporal point of view, is it not sobering to see that, if you look around the country, that most babies were born on Christmas Day, in the poorest Provinces? In the Western Cape - there was one child born. We are outnumbered some 60 to 1 in some parts of the country - so great is the disparity. So great is the difference between us.
And then there is the great moment after the Mass, where the priest and sub-deacons kneel before the crib and adore the new-born child. All the lights of the church are turned off and we find ourselves in complete darkness, save for the glinting lights of the two Christmas trees which frame the high altar and the candles. And, of course, the light which shines from the Nativity scene. It is a brief moment, and then the carol "Silent Night" is sung, by all, and from memory.
For me, this is the song my father would sing to me as a child, by way of a lullaby, to get me to go to sleep. He would produce, from a drawer in his bedroom, an old and used Christmas card, on which the words of the carol were printed. And he would sing to me, in a voice sonorous and clear and comforting. My father singing me to sleep.
And of course, the Christ-child is the lullaby of the Eternal to this battered world of ours. When we hear it, we can, even if momentarily, let go of our fears and our struggles. We can find peace, if only for a moment. For the briefest of moments.
We can pause in wonder at the place where divinity empties itself into human form. And we can ponder what the point of it all might be. Because it is far from obvious. It is, in reality, anything but clear. The message of Christmas down the ages has been, that here, in this absurity, is where we find the best and the most comforting truth there is. Into our darkness, shines the light.