Friday 22 March 2019

O Holy Night - a weary world rejoices

Trying to find the meaning of Christmas

Trying to find the meaning of Christmas
Trying to find the meaning of Christmas
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

He welcomed me and introduced himself as John. We talked for a minute about how beautiful the concert had been. And it had. You could see that even the children were in thrall to the music at times. The choir had added an orchestra this year and it made for sublime moments, moments of transcendence, Christmassy moments.

But then, that's probably not surprising. This is why people used to go to church, isn't it? Church was where you had Christmassy moments. Indeed it was the basis for the whole thing, before Coca-Cola, John Lewis Christmas ads, Starbucks, selection boxes, 24-pack boxes of crisps, the Elf on the Shelf, Baileys, Budweiser, the must-have toy this year and the rest of it, all became the meaning of Christmas.

I was still trying to shake off the hairs from the back of my neck from that moment when the choir kicks in behind the soloist in O Holy Night. That song is a bit of a cliche at this stage, but somehow, the other night, when it all kicked off: "FALLLLLLL, on your KNEEEEEEES", the choir suddenly booming in low beneath soprano Mary O'Sullivan, it elevated you. Mindfulness, transcendence, a connection to something greater, to the collective, the universal mind.

There was a cup of tea and a bit of cake across the way so we headed over. The kids grabbed a few buns and settled in. And John came over wondering what they would like to drink. The room was full and there were plenty who wanted a piece of John. I told him I'd sort the kids out, he had enough to do. But he insisted, brought back Fanta and showed the elder how to open a bottle of orange without making it fizz up.

The younger didn't want orange so John insisted he would get her milk. I said honestly she's fine. I won't be a sec, he told me, I have some over in the sacristy. I ordered him not to, but off he went, and back he came with milk. And, if he had got down and washed her feet, it couldn't have been more touching, how he treated this little person, in so many ways a second-class citizen, like the most honoured guest. And I wondered at this kind, humble man, and I wondered too if some of his fellow priests would feel uncomfortable lavishing attention on kids anymore, such is the way things are now, let down as they were by so many of their brethren.

I always come away from the annual Christmas concert by the Frascati Singers feeling an underlying sense of Christmas that I don't always get from a pub or a shop anymore. But this year I felt slightly as if I had witnessed a small, strange Christmas miracle, where Christ, or the idea of Christ, worked through this kind priest.

I actually had a good old dose of religion in the run-up to Christmas with various concerts and choirs and school events. Another sad part of church life at Christmas tends to be funerals, and last week I went to see off a good man, a kind man, a well-loved man. We all think a little bit of the transience of our own lives when we gather to bury others. And it crossed my mind that if people spoke of me when I died the way they spoke of this man, then I would truly have lived a good life and been a good husband, a good father, a good member of the community. And there is time yet hopefully.

The other thing I decided was that if I predecease Liam O Maonlai, I will leave money set aside to coax him out to sing Sean O Riada's Ceol an Aifrinn.

The funeral service was a lovely one, and the choir sang beautifully. But then came Liam O Maonlai, accompanying himself with a slightly atonal drone of pipe-like keyboards. And Ag Criost an Siol was like something that rumbled through from some ancient collective subconscious. O Maonlai channelled something deep in us all, some indigenous, almost pagan version of Christianity. It was almost like he was evoking some old folk memory of how we surround those who grieve and how we say goodbye. And that paradox of how the raw despair of keening can marry with hope and comfort. 

We all joined in the Ar nAthair, a complicated air when you think about it, but one that is somehow burnt on our unconscious. And together we reached deep into our duchas, half of us or more probably heathens, but we couldn't deny this part of us.

Are we all missing something? Did we throw the baby out with the bathwater? People gave up the Church for various reasons. People gave it up because they didn't like the Church's attitude to women, or abortion. People gave it up because of the abuse, the hypocrisy, the cruelty, mother and baby homes, John Charles McQuaid, the control they exerted over people's lives, the way they shamed people for their very humanity while they were all too human themselves. Some people gave it up because it was boring, because it didn't speak to them.

We replaced it with lots of things, like Buddhism, a religion that we decided wasn't really a religion at all; Buddhism, a creed of peace, as long as you ignore the mad monks of Burma and the Rohingyas. We replaced it with the gym and success and self-help and mindfulness and meditation, and at Christmas we gathered in pubs and shops and to eat and drink and we embraced Coca-Cola, Jo Malone, Peppa Pig, smoked salmon, free range this and organic that and 'I made the pate myself' and 'I've still got so much still to do for Christmas'.

But sometimes at Christmas, when you stand with a bunch of others and join in a booming Adeste Fideles with the choir, or you stand in a church in commune and hear Liam O Maonlai keening for his dead relative, you wonder if there isn't something missing out there in the world, if we lost something when we rejected the heart of religion as we rejected the trappings and the human failings of it. Was there some intangible thing at the heart of the church that was maybe little to do with the Catholicism that was imposed on us, but that was an ancient spirit of our duchas that was conjured up when we gathered and sang?

And are our good liberal values in many ways just an attempt to recreate the values of Christ, the original liberal, who scandalised the right-thinking people of the time by hanging out with and washing the feet of second-class citizens? As we sing O Holy Night, interpreted by John Sullivan Dwight, Transcendentalist and social radical, "Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease."

And maybe if Christ's values were more in vogue now, more part of the system, we'd have fewer kids in hotels this Christmas, fewer people ripped off by banks, maybe old people would be less afraid in their homes and maybe all of us wouldn't have to search so hard and spend so much to try and find the meaning of Christmas.

Sunday Independent

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