Off the fence
HICCOUGHS can be most embarrassing. Especially if one is infected by them while attending a solemn occasion. Myself and my father once had to carry my younger sister out of a rather large Dublin church, amid a chorus of these involuntary spasms, right in the middle of Midnight Mass.
Claire’s unscheduled guttural ricochets had initially started with an involuntary snore as her head bobbed off into the land of Nod. Undoubtedly, expedited by the soft, mellifluous sounds of a tenor solo of O Holy Night and that extra hour she had spent earlier in a Grafton Street pub. Being fair to the other worshippers in our pew, one or two of them coughed politely in an attempt to cover our familial mortification.
Fortunately too a generous sprinkling of incense during the consecration helped dilute the wafts of digesting alcohol – tinged with hot lemon and cloves – emanating from her cherubic mouth. Luckily we made a break for a side-door as communion started. The fact that my punk-rocker sister was wearing a full- length black cape helped to occlude her dangling limbs. And her semi-conscious beatific smile blended perfectly with the atmosphere of Advent and the birth of a god-child.
I have always loved Midnight Mass and that air of magical expectancy. It may be propelled by the innocent excitement of children, but it is greedily infused by us adults.
Of course, this ritual of rebirth is deeply embedded in our spiritual history and even precedes the coming of Christ. In a few days time, on December 21, the quivering and virgin light of the winter solstice will shimmer and splinter through the aperture at Newgrange, County Meath.
This engineering miracle marks much more than the construction skills of our Neolithic ancestors. Like the story of the nativity, and the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem, the illumination of the inner chamber at Newgrange unfolds an ancient story of rebirth. In this case it is of the sun, worshipped among a panoply of elemental deities by our forebears.
The Celtic spiritual message, like the Christian one, reveals a universal facet of the human species – hope and faith. And, indeed, that primal quest for survival.
The birth of the new sun augured the seasonal cycle of the frozen earth melting, the lengthening of the day and seeds sown again to be cultivated and harvested. The birth of the infant Jesus in a stable also sows the seeds of hope.
Over the years, at Midnight Mass, I often smirk about that night that George and I carried my inebriated sister out of the church. I also always seem to reflect on the evocative words of poet Patrick Kavangh in A Christmas Childhood: “Outside in cow-house my mother/Made the music of milking;/The light of her stable-lamp was a star/And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.”