Christmas Carol service followed by Midnight Mass, Monday 24 December 2012, 11.30pm
Celebrant: Monsignor Francis Kerr, Parish Priest
Christmas beckons many a non-churchgoer back into the fold, so it seemed a good idea to get a head start on my Soul Search mission by tagging along to midnight mass with my friend C, a self-confessed “cafeteria Catholic” who attends only at Christmas and Easter.
My own Presbyterian background prejudices me against such distractions as incense, gruesome statuary and overblown theatrical costumes, all of which I expect to encounter in Catholic churches, though I’m often surprised by how low-key RC services turn out to be. St Peter’s is actually comparatively light on graven images, with an airy interior painted white and simple blonde wood pews, although it does boast some spectacularly ugly mosaics of the stations of the cross.
Taking my cue from the Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper format, I determined to take note of the ordinances and oddities, but felt conspicuous as the only person writing anything down, even tucked up against a pillar. I’ve been to other churches where everyone in the pew produces a pen at the beginning of the sermon and gets down to the serious business of cross-referencing their notebooks against a well-thumbed bible bristling with post-it notes, but clearly St Peter’s isn’t a note-taking kind of congregation.
Confusingly for the uninitiated, the hymns listed on the boards were not the hymns that we sang, and while some hymns were announced in rather too careful detail – Monsignor Kerr instructing us to take our hymnbooks in our hands (rather than between our knees?), to turn to hymn 523 and to sing – other hymns began unannounced and waited for the congregation to catch up with the band.
Yes, the band. There’s no organ in St Peter’s, so they have a 10-piece band at the back of the church, heavy on the guitars, with a consequently strummy feel to every tune, even the classic carols. Carols I can take, but praise choruses are another matter. How often can you repeat “Our God Reigns” without thinking “drains”? Still, the singing was just about passable, boosted by the amplified voices of a small choir, too far away for me to work out how many choristers were involved, although the complete silence of everyone occupying the row behind us made it feel as if I was singing in a vacuum.
The highlight of the service was without a doubt the Proclamation of the Nativity, chanted in stentorian baritone and provoking the odd giggle from younger members of the congregation, although the majority of the 150 or so worshippers remained as impassive at this point as they did throughout the whole service. I’d never heard such a proclamation before, but then neither had C. in 40 years of Christmas churchgoing. Thank goodness for Google, and hats off to the baritone, who really was the star of the show.
There were readings, from Zephaniah, Isaiah, Micah, Isaiah again, Titus and Luke, but without chapter and verse being announced, and with no bibles in the pews I’ve no idea what translation was being used. Apparently, bibles are unnecessary because all these readings are contained in the Missal, though I didn’t spot anyone who’d brought one.
The sermon was simple, uncontroversial and exactly eight minutes long. The eight-second summary is as follows: Christ was born in obscurity – no flags, no parades, no fireworks – and ignored by the world until God broke the silence by sending the angel to the shepherds; you don’t need to be important or influential to make Jesus known to others.
The communion was offered in both kinds (i.e. both wafer and wine), although there were few takers for the wine. I was surprised – based on what was clearly a false assumption about Catholic rites – to see any wine being consumed other than by the priest, so I looked it up and found a kind of agony column with an answer to this question.
I left with many other anthropological questions, such as why people keep their hands clasped as they return from receiving communion, and what the threefold wafting and clinking of the thurible is supposed to achieve. But on the whole, I was left with the strong impression that it had been an oddly subdued occasion, lacking in the exuberant joy I might have expected the faithful to exhibit at the birth of their Messiah. Perhaps they were rejoicing inwardly.