Midnight Mass at Chilcomb – for the Hampshire Chronicle

I love Midnight Mass; it’s when poetry, drama and worship collide. For us, the celebration does not begin with the usual recognition of God’s presence, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”, but with a gathering together in the warmth and fellowship of our Rectory before beginning the night walk across fields to Chilcomb Church. Neither does the celebration end the wishing of a “Merry Christmas” after the blessing. God’s presence continues to be felt in the warmth of mulled wine and mince pies, and the tired dark trek back across fields. On this night, our worship overflows both the opening and closing of our liturgy. I’m reminded of The Fragment by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney; “Since when,” he asked,/ “Are the first line and last line of any poem/ Where the poem begins and ends?” Midnight Mass is unbounded faith breaching its beginning and ending. Our unrestrained God is sung in Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter, “Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain”. In the harsh darkness of this season, the overflowing nature of God is discovered.


I also love the idea that we encounter God in the midst of darkness, in the middle of one of our longest nights. This is an ancient tradition. Moses had to journey from an initial (naïve?) vision of God as light, in a burning bush; to mystically (mature?) encountering of God in darkness in the enfolding clouds of Mount Sinai. Faith is mystery not rational proof and the God whom we worship in the depths of darkness will always remain hidden. “If you can understand, then it’s not God”, said the influential theologian Augustine.


The hidden nature of Midnight Mass is a warning against certainty and how certitude can close our minds to the new opportunities and insights offered by, what St. Paul calls, being “In Christ”. In Christ, our social categories break down, there is no male and female. In Christ, the finality of death is destroyed. In Christ, the reassurance offered by following a set law is undermined. Everything is redefined in that most inexpressible of emotions, love; the emotion that can only be expressed in the fluid language of poetry or song, or the symbolism of gift or touch.


The contemporary Irish poet, Pádraig Ó Tuama, writes in his poem The Creed, “I once was wrong/ because I thought I was right.” Clinging to certainty, to the bright revealing light of day and its clinical observations, can make us feel that we have the right answers when we have yet to properly explore the questions. Midnight Mass with its archaic language, traditional hymns and ancient setting engages our emotions and insight; raising questions prompted by darkness and mystery. The emotion of faith is engaged by the surrounding darkness. God is heard in the silence of the night. A child is worshiped in absolute vulnerability. The human condition is reborn.


Wishing you all a joyful and reflective Christmas night.

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