Thursday, December 27, 2018

Four complaints about Christmas Eve Midnight Mass

You cannot call yourself truly crabby unless you complain about Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. So here are some things.

Of course the good people of the choir, who have been practicing since October, would not dream of singing traditional carols for the half hour "choral prelude" before midnight. There were ten songs, many of which began with a few bars of a familiar melody, and then veered off into the narrow shallow well trod ruts of the "contemporary." Not a single one of these little tunes will live beyond the minutes it took to sing them. Because why on earth would it make any sense to sing ancient carols whose whole point is their association with the season, once a year, for the enjoyment and edification of a church packed full of people who only attend once a year? I know right?

Then there was the matter of the chant, that I have only heard twice in my lifetime, once in high school and once last year at this very parish. I used to think of it as a sort of litany of creation, but it has a name: it is the Proclamation of the Nativity, and was regularly chanted before Midnight Mass until Vatican II dispensed with it. Pope St. John Paul II revived it, and because the world saw it on t.v. once a year at his Christmas Eve masses, parishes around the world have sometimes revived it too. In an authentic literal translation of the Latin, it recites the stupendous events of spiritual history preceding the birth of Christ according to Biblical time, that is, yes, as if creation happened six thousand years ago and as if we know the precise date of the Exodus from Egypt, and so forth, thereby. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops provides a kinda-sorta version, with timid and jarringly faux-scientific "untold ages" or "several thousand years" standing in for the robust proud dates of the original. A musing, faculty-lounge worthy "around the thousandth year since David was anointed king" replaces "the one thousand and thirty-second year from David's being anointed king," for instance. The point of this polite avoiding of dates seems to be to not appear fundamentalist, which is quite hilarious when you think about it. The sophisticate whose judgment we fear, on that score, already thinks we're fundamentalist because we're at Midnight Mass worshiping a doll anyway. Why not enjoy the poetry of the robust dates?

Anyway my complaint is that this year my parish didn't provide the proclamation at all. Disappointing. Maybe next year.

Then there was the matter of the Prologue to the Gospel of John. We changed that too, because of course we're more advanced than the saint and Beloved Disciple who also wrote Revelation. Just a tad: where the great line reads, through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race [really originally, men] (John 1:4), the lector -- a woman, a lectress? -- carefully and pointedly intoned, "this life was the light of the human races." Ho ho, I chortled bitterly in my pew, but wasn't the joy of it all, once, that all men are one in Christ Jesus? What races are we talking about? Isn't "what divides us" usually bad? Or, have we circled back in our lofty and open-minded wisdom to 1930, or perhaps 1830? And shall we start measuring skulls again, and deciding who is better?

Then came the great moment. Mind you, all along I am from time to time asking God to forgive me for sneering even in the middle of Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The good deacon read the Gospel, and he got confused -- I thought -- and read the wrong one. The ruffling of pages from the pews, where people were trying to find his place in the worship booklets, must have alerted him, for after fumbling through something about Joseph deciding to take Mary into his home anyway, the deacon paged through his own lectionary at the pulpit and then finished with Matthew 1:25. He had no relations with her until she bore a son.   

This was something of a minor tragedy. An actual knot of tension seemed to collect and then fray out in the air. The church was full of people who will never come again to Mass until next year if that, and they heard one of the most problematic texts there must be in the Gospels, heard it flatly proclaimed in what, to the English ear, can only be language that said "of course St. Joseph, foster father of the Son of God, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, had sex after, like normal people."

I looked up this line in both my two Bibles, the Douai translation made by Englishmen in France in Tudor times, who knew they faced hanging, drawing and quartering if they snuck back into Good Queen Bess' realm to say a Mass in a private home, in a nation that had been Catholic until the day before yesterday; and I looked it up in the New American Bible, translated by scholars who I think are careful above all of the opinions of sophisticates. The Douai translation for Matthew 1: 25 lays out the line in almost exactly the same English. And he knew her not till she brought forth her first born son. But the fathers of Douai added notes about the truth of faith, which the fathers of the New American Bible do not. There are "divers examples," the former say, that this word until represents a manner of speaking in Scripture, to denote what is done regardless of the future. God says I Am till you grow old (Isaiah 46:4). Does this mean He then ceases to exist? King David's wife Michal had no children till the day of her death (2 Samuel 6). Did she have some after?

The New American Bible fathers simply say "the Greek word for until does not imply normal marital conduct after Jesus' birth -- or exclude it."

Those are my four complaints for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Purblind music, no proclamation, giving St. John what for, and dropping on unsuspecting people what seemed like the bomb of news about Joseph and Mary's postpartum sex life. One more thing I was puzzled to know, and so I looked up this too, is where the good deacon flipped ahead to, to find that Gospel reading from Matthew. I thought he may have found some random Sunday. It turns out he was in the right place all along, he just omitted a lot, or perhaps our Mass booklets were printed wrong. His reading really ended exactly where it should have done.

In my grandmother's old Missal from the early 1960s, the Gospel readings for the three Masses of Christmas Day, midnight, dawn, and daytime, are only from St. Luke or St. John. Could the fathers of the Church have once understood that problematic texts from St. Matthew, while never hidden, are also not to be hurled at once-a-year visitors on Christmas Eve? -- especially in this modern era when the faithful, researching notes in a modern Catholic Bible, will find no help there? Who decided to impose the difficulties of Matthew on Christmas, and why? My first impression of it, bitter and crabby and ho-ho-ing in my pew as I had been and then alone by lamplight, ignorant as I am, -- was, this was malicious. And I should know, right?       

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