As long as I have been in Baltimore, nearly 30 years now, two Sundays before Christmas I go up to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen to the Festival of the Lessons and Carols. It is my last slim connection with the faith of my fathers, the religion of my childhood.
I used to drag my heathen wife with me and when our daughter was small, she always went, too. I even took my Protestant in-laws once. Having strange notions of Roman Catholicism, I think they feared they might see animals sacrificed or divination (extispicy or cleromancy). I think they were disappointed when they didn’t.
Lessons and Carols is not a religious service, in case freethinkers are following along here. It lasts about 90 minutes and consists of a series of readings from the Old and New Testaments relating to the Nativity, plus a lot of old carols. “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming,” “In Dulce Jubilo” and “Adeste Fidelis.” I approve of old carols. It’s like going to the opera. One of my favorites is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” an old song popular in New England from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It contains the line, “… the wrong shall fail, the right prevail.” Noble thoughts, though it occurs to me that the lesson in this carol is never the way to bet.
My favorite part of the service is that there is no homily— no sermon. I do not want to hear a sermon. I have a lifetime’s worth of sermons playing on a loop in my head, thank you. I go for the peace that surpasses understanding. I like to get there early, sit in the darkened nave lit mostly with candles and contemplate the meaning of life, the ghosts of Christmases past and what Dylan Thomas called “the crumbs of one man’s year.” I can’t, in truth, say I have a spiritual experience; it’s probably too late for that. But it is quiet. Be still and know.
The cathedral fills up slowly and I am sad to report that the congregation has thinned of late. There are a lot of parties on a Sunday two weeks before the Yuletide. The siren song of free crab balls and bourbon has tempted many of the faithful. But I can’t afford to be too judgmental here. This is my annual trip to church. This is my day of atonement. My High Holiday.
The service begins in the half-light of those flickering candles with the single, sweet, high voice of a child intoning “Once in Royal David’s City.” And soon the entire choir (much improved by the addition of the voices of women and girls) is singing as they process down the side of the cathedral and up the middle aisle toward the altar. It is a long line of robed choristers and priests. For years Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan was the star of the show and when my daughter was 3 she stood in the pew and shouted, “Look, look, a king, a king!” when his grandly attired eminence went past. He looked just like the late Irish character actor Barry Fitzgerald.
Now old Cardinal Sheehan is dead (I remember him sitting at his lunchtime table in Marconi’s). Marconi’s is gone, too. My daughter is away in the world. My wife is home baking cookies (a goodly thing at Christmas). I go alone and sit in that cathedral and remember every Christmas that ever was. “Nothing is ever forgotten. Nothing is ever lost. It’s too valuable,” William Faulkner reminds us.
My parents, with whom I long kept Christmas, are dead now. But they are with me again in the cathedral. For Christmas is a season of memory and melancholy. It is no mere accident that James Joyce set “The Dead,” the finest short story ever written in the English language, at Christmas. Ernest Hemingway has a wonderful short piece called “Christmas in Paris,” which he wrote for The Toronto Star at Christmas in 1922. “You do not know what Christmas is until you lose it in some foreign land,” Hemingway tells us at the end.
Christmas is supposed to be the season to be jolly, is it not? Fa, la, la, la, la…and so forth. It is also the season of good will toward all men. But Christmas seems a sad time, too. And, as for good will toward all men, as soon as the first shots are fired in the annual battle of the manger vs. the menorah, we will see how much good will there is. Fa, la, la, la, la …
Christmas, alas, is a grotesque spectacle, a time of savage waste and indulgence from the moment the first L.L. Bean catalog arrives in the summer and the elves at Rite Aid drag out the ornaments. By the time the actual holiday arrives we are deadened. Still, it remains the only time of the year when the world is briefly quiet. Silent night. I like that as much as I like the lessons and carols.
It begins late on the afternoon of Christmas Eve and by early evening all is calm, all is bright. The quiet does not last long, not much longer than the morning after Christmas. It’s briefer than an eclipse— and almost as improbable— but it happens.
“A Festival of Lessons and Carols for Christmas,” which is free and open to the public, will be held Sunday, Dec. 16 at 5:30 p.m. at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5200 N.Charles St., Baltimore, 410-464-4000, http://www.cathedralofmary.org.