Christmas Eve in the Monastery

Christmas Eve in the monastery is, like Holy Saturday, a time out of time. We are still in Advent, but we have half a foot in Christmas as we put up the Christmas decorations and begin to think about sending Christmas greetings. Key to the whole is the singing of the Christmas Martyrology (Proclamation). I shall be thrifty and recycle what I wrote about it last year:

Very early this morning, while it was still dark and everything was silent and still, the nuns sang the Vigils of Christmas Eve. Just before the second lesson, two large gilt candlesticks were placed beside the choir lectern. A short pause, and then a single voice began singing the Christmas Martyrology (also known as the Christmas Proclamation), locating the birth of Christ in time and place.

It is an ancient custom. The chant used has a haunting, plangent quality which becomes urgent and insistent as we reach the words proclaiming the birth of Christ, falling away again with the final phrase, ‘the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.’ The nuns then kneel in silence.  With the coming of the Word, no further words are necessary. But we love words, and we love to fill every moment of every day with the rattle and tattle of human speech, don’t we?

Christmas Eve can be very tiring: all those last-minute preparations, people to see, things to do. The idea of finding a little silence, a moment or two of inner solitude, may be greeted with derisive laughter, but we need to try because, without a moment to register what we are about to celebrate, we may end up missing the whole point of Christmas. Today we look both ways: back on our Advent journey, which showed us how much we need a Saviour; forward to the birth which has changed everything, for ever.

The Christmas Martyrology reminds us that we are celebrating the birth of a baby, not a theological abstraction; and we do so without the syrupy sentimentality which can sometimes mark Christmas Day itself. It is worth thinking about that birth and what it entailed, not just for Mary and Joseph but also for Jesus himself — the mighty Word of God confined to a baby’s body, a baby’s helplessness. The first sound uttered by the Word of God on coming into the world was probably a long wail. I don’t want to press the analogy too far, but we all of us understand a baby’s cry. It is a universal language, one which calls forth kindness and compassion from even the most selfish and self-absorbed. Could that be the response Jesus is looking for from us today? Could that be the gift we are to bring to the crib tonight?

May you have a happy and holy Christmas!


6 thoughts on “Christmas Eve in the Monastery”

  1. As my mother lay in bed this morning, nearing the end of her time on earth, she clutches tightly a figure of the infant from the manger; Emmanuel in her hands and Jesus holding her tight in his hands; we wait for her Emmanuel, her moment of God with Us. Amen

  2. I love the Hymn O Come Emmanuel and it’s vibrancy gets more urgent as each day of Advent passes. Now the time is near, we are at the height of our expectations, anticipation and wonder and awe.

    The Birth of Christ denotes a new beginning and all else fades into the shadows. I’m serving at midnight mass tonight for the final time in my parish, I move to All Saints Church in Belvedere and will celebrate at their 10am Service tomorrow with the new people to which I belong.

    Christ’s birth marks a new beginning for all peoples, and this year for the next phase on discerning where he might be calling me to serve. It’s a wonderful joyful thing to be sharing and to know that the offer of service has been received with open arms and hearts. The next step is a meeting in January with a Diocesan advisor and God will take a hand in what follows.

    Today at the height of my excitement, prayers for you both and for anyone sharing Christmas with you. May the Birth of Jesus Christ bring new blessings and vocations and that your ministry online and offline flourish and proclaim the Kingdom to many.

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