Midnight Mass with St. John the Divine

December 29th, 2009 § 0 comments

Generally speaking I admittedly don’t know very much about religion. I have not been inside very many American churches and have sat through even fewer services, but I do know something about European cathedrals. What religion I have studied came through art history where not only did we briefly study the most famous European basilicas, cathedrals, and churches, but by now I have also been inside most of them. While looking at biblical paintings can sometimes turn into a passive activity of visual monotony, something about the physical experience of being within a Gothic cathedral leaves a deeply unforgettable impression. Notre Dame, the Pantheon, St. Peter’s, San Marco, all have that same transcendent feeling you get from natural wonders, but impressively these are places we built. It is the overwhelming sense of human touch that the great cathedrals have that give them their feeling if divinity, or at least a sense of eternity.


Walking into Notre Dame for the first time I remember thinking that whatever might be beyond us in this life, God or otherwise, would be lurking somewhere, if anywhere at all, in those crisscrossing rooftop arches, in its ornately twisted altarpiece, or in the stained glass depictions of death and resurrection. Where the builders wanted you to feel some kind of divine presence they succeeded instead in arousing a strong feeling of awe at our human persistence to believe. It is the traces of use, the centuries of wear and tear, however, that made me love these cathedrals. Europeans might make you pay to use a dirty public restroom in a train station, but their churches, however small, do feel like welcoming places. I have many memories of ducking into a church while sightseeing, for warmth, a place to sit down, or a moment of quiet, and never did I feel unwelcome. Almost every church I have had the misfortune to wander near in our country has felt like a member-only gym.

riverside church

The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Morningside Heights, near my favorite taco restaurant in Manhattan, reminds me of a European cathedral. Started in 1892 it is still under various kinds of renovation and construction. The Cathedral stands out sharply against the city landscape, as most of the beautiful churches in the city do. At St. John the Divine they show movies, they have artists in residence, and they house people who do not even believe in god. It might have been Philip Pettit who sold me on this particular church, or the doorman who told me not to be afraid, that cathedrals are for everyone, but I thought it might be enlightening, interesting, or entertaining to attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The two hour, forty-five minute service was definitely every one of those things.


It was enlightening and interesting, if not always in a positive sense. I still can’t wrap my mind around the formalities of church services. The rules are captivating, and they remind me of watching marines guard the Tomb of the Unknown, or the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. You’re not sure why things are done the way they are, but you understand that being a part of it is comforting and empowering. Belonging, or believing, seems to require a kind of compromise I am not comfortable with. I loved the music even if I had a hard time following the verses. A man behind me, sight-reading and singing louder than the rest, had a lovely voice and helped carry us along. It was a beautiful service, maybe most of all when we lit our candles, the church lights dimmed, and we sang Silent Night. It was also an entertaining service, and sometimes I think we ruin our best attempts at transcendent thought or setting. Static from security blasted in tune with the organist, a couple fighting for closer seats stole chairs from a family with children, and a drunken couple entered late in the service and participated by groping each other. It was a very eclectic crowd.


I certainly received my fill of organized religion, enough to last through all of 2010, but it was a new way to begin a perfectly lovely Christmas morning.

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