by Meg Currell
I grew up Catholic. My South Side Chicago Irish mother had an uncle AND a brother who were priests, so family gatherings were especially holy. My Uncle John, the priest, once said Mass for us privately, in our home. I watched, amazed, as he took out his vestments and Mass supplies from his regular old suitcase. Shouldn’t they be in a tabernacle or something? A vault?
Catholicism for me wasn’t just a Sunday thing.
I went to parochial school, with the black-watch-plaid jumper and crisp white shirt with a Peter Pan collar. I absorbed the ritual of the Church with fervor; the incense, candle-lighting, First Friday Mass and the absolution of being chosen the bearer of the Gifts. It was as close as this young girl would ever get to being an altar boy or (my true wish) a priest.
The music at church was the beginning of my musical life. My mother skipped all the post-Vatican II guitar-music “crap”, instead singing all the traditional songs in her glorious voice. She drew stares that made me embarrassed; I didn’t want anybody looking at us for any reason. But the music breathed into m; it was the connective tissue that held all Catholics together in their joy and fear and wonder at God’s creation. I would come home on Sundays and pick out on the piano the songs we’d just sung. My mother got me in piano lessons right away.
Christmas was a time of particular musical glory. The methodical ticking off of days during Advent urged us toward the Big Day with even greater anticipation than Santa, who was an ancillary figure in my early childhood. The real deal was baby Jesus and getting ready for his awesome birthday celebration in the Church. The sanctuary and the priest were festooned in Advent purple, the parish Christmas tree decorated with ornaments made by my classmates and me, Jacob’s ladders and construction paper Coats of Many Colors, the sacred tulle frothing our anticipation of the appearance of baby Jesus. A wooden crèche with its empty manger stood at the side of the altar, handmade by the father of one of my classmates, each figure a sculpture lovingly shaped by the hands of an appliance repairman.
The church rang with the haunting music of waiting, the sound of the entire Church aching for the arrival of the Savior. Advent music moves at the pace of a slow trudge through the desert, riding a donkey, thirsty and cold and looking for shelter. Much of the music reveres Mary, as she prepares to become the Mother of God; Ave Maria, Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming. My mother, who believed that singing is praying twice, would sing in her spinning soprano, eyes closed, lost, I suspect, in memory and longing not for the Christ child, but for her own child self singing songs in Latin now lost in the post-Vatican II purge.
Of the songs of reverent longing, O Come, O Come Emmanuel was the most sacred and haunting. A voice crying out for relief for a people lost. I had a vague understanding that it referred to the Jewish people lost in the desert, but as a child I knew only that we as a people were waiting for Emmanuel, and that singing would draw Him closer. With its minor key and antiphonic sway, it felt close to my mother’s Latin Mass music, the Gregorian chant that echoed through monasteries as the monks and friars walked through their daily duties, which involved gardening and cleaning and coloring in pages of sacred text.
Just like those men of God, we sang and prayed twice for the coming of this Savior.
One year, my priest-Uncle John took me—and only me—to Midnight Mass. I was the youngest child, the protected baby of the family, and allowing me to stay up so late was an honor. That I was attending church with a priest, a real man of God, made me feel holy, as if his study and devotion were conferred upon me just because I was around him. We sat near the front, down the left aisle, near the Christmas tree. As darkness fell and candles were lit, I knelt next to this priest, the “inside man” who had a key to the mysteries of the Church that was my mother’s sustaining breath. Four weeks’ anticipation of Advent collected in the cold air of the church, heavy with incense and aftershave and a fresh spritz of perfume, the one present opened before coming to Mass.
And we sang, my priest-Uncle’s wobbly tenor glossing over notes and words I knew by heart. He wasn’t the singer my mother was, but I could stand in for her, my 10 or 12 year old self only now exploring my singing voice. We sang the songs to call Christ near to us, to let Him know we were ready for Him to bestow His grace upon us for another year. “O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captives,” we captives, we who spent the whole year trapped in our humanness and frailty, but four weeks before Christmas, we got our acts together and look! We’re ready now!
At the stroke of midnight, we were allowed to sing the glorias announcing the birth. Joy to the World! Go Tell it on the Mountain! Hark the Herald Angels Sing!
But that exultation was hollow for me, less invigorating than the longing that marked His approach. We would all go back to normal now, to “ordinary” time in the Church, to music meant to beat us into compliance, not for elevating our thoughts God-ward. No music for the rest of the year would come as close to touching God as Advent music, none as full of the purpose of calling Him close to us. On Christmas, that purpose was discarded like crumpled wrapping paper, an empty box to be reused next year.
I am now a faithless, Godless heathen in my adulthood, having left the Church and then Christianity and then belief in God in progressive stages. But the effort of straining God-ward left in me a sense memory, like swinging a baseball bat or jumping off a raft: I can still feel it, even if I don’t do it anymore. The strings of Advent-music melodies pull me back into the place of longing, o come, o come Emmanuel, disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Once again, I want to sing to draw Christ near, if only for one dark sparkling night.