Christchurch Cathedral - An Irish Tapestry at Christmas

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  • Goblets
  • Preparations
  • Smiles of Friendship
  • Robes
  • Candle Flame
  • Words of Wisdom
  • Greeting the Congregation
  • Gothic Arches
  • Christmas Chorals
  • Refined Stride
  • The Organist
  • Diverse Parishioners
  • Midnight Shades

 An Irish Tapestry at Christmas

Sunken into a navy blue sky, a few scattered stars keep their ageless vigil on the streets of Dublin. In this place under these same stars almost one thousand years ago King Sitric Silkenbeard, the Viking King of Dublin, laid the wooden foundations of a cathedral which has grown symbiotically with the city it inhabits. As the city has grown, declined and prospered over the millennium, so too has the cathedral risen, fallen and been rebuilt. It has at times hosted the coronation of Kings and at times common street markets and taverns; been bestowed with wealth to be later disendowed; been considered simultaneously a corner stone of the capital and an enclave of the enemy. The spiritual home of both of the prevalent faiths on the island, Christchurch Cathedral casts a long shadow into her nation’s past. At the Midnight mass of Christmas Eve 2007, this institution hosts a discourse of the past and present, offering a glass to those who would view the Ireland of old entwined with the nation as she exists in the modern-day.

The chapter house in the Eastern block of the cathedral is slowly filling up prior to the first Eucharist of the Nativity. Infused with the energy of the occasion and the atmosphere of excited anticipation is an aura of mourning; the funeral of the Dean of Christchurch, the Very Reverend Desmond Harman was held just two days previously. Acting as Precenter and preacher in his place tonight is Adrian Empey, an inquisitive and compelling professor of medieval history. Empey personifies the IrishChurch’s intellectual heritage as does his colleague John Bartley, himself a retired Precenter and professor of Biblical Studies at TrinityCollege until 1989, also donning his robes in the ornate, wood panelled chapter house. A distinct figure in one corner of this bustling room is the tall, smiling visage of the Reverend Kalmer Keskyla. A member of the Irish Estonian community, the Reverend is a construction worker by day who recently performed the first ever Estonian language service in Ireland, the second being planned for late February. In a separate corner but also smiling, exuberating energy all around her is Anathy Rajan. The young Indian was a professional choral singer before arriving in Ireland where she works as a staff nurse in Tallagh. Tonight she is carrying a candle in the procession. The Celebrant for the mass is the Archbishop, standing  distinct in his purple robes he strikes a commanding figure amongst the colour-coded clergy.

At 11pm as the first muffled bars of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit, Midnight Mass, are heard in the chapter house the assembled procession performs its final preparations and sets forth: Through the back rooms and into the cathedral, now a cauldron of sound and energy, the procession weaves across the foremost chapels, under arches and down the side of the great hall, past the tomb of Strong bow to the rear where it turns, proceeding steadily, inexorably, between the risen congregation, under domes, between stained windows, by lamp light and by candle light the very stone walls seem alive, reverberating with the chords of the mighty organ and the soaring voices of the choir.

Led by Judy Martin the Christchurch cathedral choir, performing alongside the cathedral girls’ choir, is the only professional cathedral choir in the world in which women sing the soprano and alto lines. The predominantly young choir appear remarkably calm despite their large audience and the prestige of the event; they appear in actuality not nervous but joyous as they herald the commencement of the service.

You are most welcome to this celebration of the Eucharist. Whether you come as a member of the Church of Ireland, an Anglican/Episcopalian from abroad, or as a member of another Christian tradition, we welcome you in the name of the Lord.

While traditions vary across culture and place the holding of traditions is the one tenet uniform to all forms of humanity. In accordance with tradition the congregation stand, kneel, sit, listen, speak, retort, sing, in unison. The spirited choir punctuate the festivities with renditions of Christmas favourites; Reverend Empey relates in his sermon the story of the birth of the Christ, depicting an exotic Eastern tale as imagined by Westerners. Juxtaposing forms of language in a manner somehow entirely appropriate, he summons images of “cosmic choirs of angels, working overtime, shattering the stillness of the night.” Considering the Big Bang, life crawling from pools of biological soup and the word existent in the beginning he draws the conclusion “The significance of the end lies in the beginning, and not the other way around.”

Reservoirs of wind are once more channelled through two and a half thousand pipes, the great oak organ finds it’s reverberating voice again. The choir and congregation join in at full volume, the domes and the arches of the cathedral’s architecture channelling the energy directly towards the heavens

Sing, choirs of angels, Sing in exultation, sing all ye citizens of heaven above,

Yea, Lord we greet thee, Born this happy morning,

O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,

Christ the Lord.

Heads awash with echoes of verse and the mysteries of religion, science and creation are cut loose into the bitter Dublin night. A smiling, shivering, disparate group, the composition implies a mix of the spiritually motivated and the plain curious. Included in this flock are a group of middle-aged Indian men and women. Roman Catholics, they have come tonight to try something new and experience the fabled music at Christchurch. One young Irish couple frequent the service every year unlike Yiu, a Chinese girl who has been living in Ireland for five years and chose tonight as her first experience of a Christian service, persuaded by an Irish colleague to come. A retired English woman present “had the misfortune of marrying an Irishman,” the family coming here to celebrate Christmas together. One small group is composed of Italians and Slovakians. Waiters and waitresses in the Italian quarter, they feel they have to be here – it is, after all, Christmas. They profess to be “kinda protestant – but its not important”, a sentiment  which seems to have become increasingly central motif as the evening has progressed, and a sentiment echoed by two North American students in their early twenties – one Canadian, one Mexican, one Protestant, the other a Roman catholic the differences inherent between them simply do not appear to have registered. “Its just not important” they shrug.  

We’re told that God’s son died not for one race, creed or era but for all people of all times. A comforting belief for this amalgamation of disparate peoples facing the blustery, sub-zero Dublin night together. We tramp in unison, this tapestry of Ireland, into the cold Christmas morning.

Words Christopher Boucher