The Christmas Midnight Mass At Saint Sulpice
( Originally Published 1915 )
I RETURNED to Paris last night, hurrying across Europe for Christmas Eve with my family, after my first absence from home since the day that war broke out.
During these past three weeks I have been in Lyons, Geneva, Lausanne, Berne, Zurich, Stuttgart, Berlin, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Buda-Pesth, and Innsbruck—a flying trip through the heart of the enemy's country. I came back with a heavy heart on Christmas Eve, for I realized now that the war would be long, and that the suffering of these past months is not to be compared with that through which Europe has to pass during the year 1915. My many trains took me through no railway station on the platform of which I did not see women in tears. Women in tears, that is the whole of this war epitomized in three words.
Travel stained and weary, I left the war and its problems behind me when I entered the door of my home last night, and saw my children around their Christmas tree. Three little tots for whom I can hope no greater blessing than that they grow up in the midst of a world that does not know, that does not experience, what the world knows and experiences today. As I look at them, that is my thought. But there it is, the war coming in again ! I o not leave it at the door, even on Christmas Eve, the fête of the Prince of Peace.
Then come the dinner guests, the English merchant and his wife, who have been heavily it by bills unpaid in Germany; the Modiste, who hats are not selling this winter and whose January rent is a problem, for all her men-folk are at th war; the Sewing-Woman who would have been married in September had not her lover been killed in August in the retreat from Belgium; the two Russian girls, students at the Sorbonne, who have been cut off from home since the war began and are now trying to keep body and soul together on a franc a day by sewing at an ouvroir; the Greek Musician from Constantinople who fears that his father and brother may have been killed by the Turks—and so on! With each I greet comes the thought and shadow of THE WAR.
But the frolic with the children, followed}i by association around the dinner table, brings good cheer. And good cheer dispels gloom. Our party is not an unhappy one.
It was after eleven when our guests began to go. The Girl and I did not urge them to stay longer. We knew what difficulty those who lived in Auteuil and Passy would have in finding a taxi and in persuading the chauffeur to take them away over there across the city. And then, we wanted to go to the Midnight Mass at St. Sulpice. We set up our first home in the dear old Rue Servandoni, under the shadow f St. Sulpice, and have never lost our. affection for our old parish church. (Midnight mass at St. Sulpice is to us as much an institution as our Christmas tree.
When we had bid our last guest Godspeed, and had assured ourselves that three curly heads were peacefully resting on three little white pillows, we slipped out into the Boulevard du Montparnasse, and hurried through the Rue Vavin to the Luxembourg, quickening our steps almost to a run in the dark streets, for fear lest we be too late to get inside the church. St. Sulpice is one of the largest buildings in the world, but is never large enough for the Christmas midnight mass.
We were in time. The four strokes of half past eleven were just sounding as we entered the church. The seats were filled, and the aisles were filling. But we managed to push our way through the crowd to a certain spot that has precious associations for us, and is at the same time a vantage point to those who know St. Sulpice. For we could see the high altar, the choir in the apse, and look down through the nave of faces turned in our direction up to the organ loft where Maître Widor still sits on state occasions.
The silence of the expectant thousands, this moment if ever in their lives in a worshipful mood, was broken only by constant footfalls on the stone floors, and the occasional whispered "pardon" of one who tried to push his way, as we had done from the doors towards the choir.
A few minutes before twelve, the verger mounted the high altar to light those candles that hare not yet been profaned by electric globesS Real wax and flickering light—how rare that now is.
As the first stroke of midnight from the bell in the north tower reverberated through the church, the priest and acolytes came into the chancel. When the twelfth stroke announced the new day, Maître Widor bent over the organ. It was Adam's Noël that he began to play. A tenor voice rose in the stillness.
Minuit' chrétien ! C'est l'heure solennelle Où l'homme Dieu descendit jusqu'à nous, Pour effacer la tache originelle Et de son père arrêter Le courroux. Le monde entier tresaille d'espérance A cette nuit qui lui donne un Sauveur.
Peuple à genoux, attends ta déliverance, Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur.
The priest had opened his missal, and the vast congregation was following him in the silent mass. A wonderful chorus, worthy inheritor of three centuries of glorious Sulpician tradition, repeated the last two lines f the verse.
Then the soloist began again, accompanied by the soaring obligato of a violin.
De notre foi que la lumière ardente
Nous guide tous au berceau de l'enfant,
Comme autrefois une étoile brillante
Y conduisit les chefs de l'Orient.
Le Roi des rois, né dans un humble créche. Puissants du jour, fiers de votre grandeur,
A votre orgeuil—c'est de là qu'un dieu prêche : Courbez vos fronts devant le Rédempteur !
The Girl had gripped my arm hard. All around were crying, and she was. I looked with eyes that seemed to see, and yet seemed not to see, out over the faces turned towards the altar. The third verse had started. The singer was pleading with us again to bow our heads with joy before the Christ Child who had come to bring peace.
Never had I seen so few men at a Christmas mass. Aside from the white haired, most of the masculine worshipers were in uniform and wounded. How many among those who had gathered here to hail the advent of peace on earth and good will among men had given their sons or their husbands or their fathers to France during these past five months !
Only three days ago I stood on the Kârtnerring in Vienna and watched the limousines purring softly up to the steps f the Opera House, and the gay and laughing men and women in evening dress coming out of the house of song and laughter. Only a week ago I sat in a café at Berlin and watched the mid-night riot of drinking men and their companions. Oh ! Paris, Paris ! Will they ever have cause to feel as you feel tonight? Are there those in the world who may make suffering and not suffer'?
Silence ! The music has stopped. A moment of stillness. Then the tinkling of the acolytes bell at the high altar, followed by the tinkling o other bells in the dozen chapels f the apse an nave where other priests are celebrating silent masses.
The elevation of the cup ! Then the triunphant chorus, bursting forth into Adeste Fideles.
When the last line of the hymn of fifteen centuries of hallowed Christmas usage has been sung, the mass is finished. The communicants press towards the rail.
We turn to go. Mockery, illusion, delusion, what means this ceremony in Paris tonight? A thousand who were here last Christmas Eve are dead: and another thousand are in the trenches only fifty miles away, shooting their fellowmen and being shot by them. But these people have got something from this midnight mass. I can feel that. I can feel it in the silence of the Girl at my side, in her tears, in her smile.
We go out into the dark. As I button my overcoat, I see the Jesuit Father standing by a pillar f the great porch. We pass close by him to reach the steps.
"Merry Christmas!" he said.
"Merry Christmas !" responded the Girl.
"But merry—why merry'?" I asked.
"Happiness. for the Christ Child." he answered. "A happiness that drowns all sorrow : for, it transcends all sorrow, just as God's goodness transcends 'our weakness. Merry Christmas for you, for France, for the world...
I looked at him. His shoulders were thrown back, his fine face from forehead to beard was showing forth Christ in him, the Hope of Glory.
what the Girl had received inside, I received now.
"Merry Christmas!" I said.