I didn’t realise that my 50th day in Europe would be the day before Christmas.
I think this was the best Christmas eve celebration I’ve ever witnessed.
We were two hours early in the queue. The eve mass was starting at 2330; we were there at 2100 waiting for the gates of the Salzburg Cathedral to open. We got a wrong information from the internet, so instead going back to our hotel, a good 10-minute walk from the church, we just killed time at the steps of the cathedral, as people crowded in group by group, speaking in various tongues, looking all either cold or cozy clad in piles of winter clothes. We chatted with whomever was standing close-by; for one, there was a family from California — husband, wife, and only daughter — who initiated a conversation with us after recognising the familiar Tagalog we were speaking.
At 2300, the gates were opened; we were first in line, but the rest walked past us primarily because we were careful enough not to stir the sleeping baby in the stroller.
Once in, we were awed, openmouthed, amazed, enthralled, just speechless by the baroque beauty inside. Several enormous domes up there in the ceiling, all looking intricately carved and painted. And after looking up for what seemed like eternity, you’d wonder whether it was all just optical illusion, if, after all, the ceiling was just flat.
From where we were seated, some 20 rows from the altar, we had an excellent view, if you looked up long enough, of what was there in the middle of the main dome — an angel or a white large-winged bird as if at the brink of flying down toward us any minute.
And then the Christmas eve programme started. (I like to call it “programme” because it was.)
A Catholic mass ceremony is a beauty to behold. The start of the eve mass was signaled by a bell ringing and that cued the people to stand up. An entire priesthood including altar boys slowly walked up, donned in perfectly ironed, impeccable white or gold-coloured clergy clothing, one of them clutching a gold-like staff, another swinging an incense lamp.
Not always as formal and wonderfully implemented as this, but a mass is a programme or an outline that every Catholic church in the world follows. Even the way we are “supposed” to say our prayers. It is typically recommended to start with words of praises, then of gratitude, then of petition for forgiveness of sins, and then of our plenty requests to have this and that, to get this and that. Whether or not we say our prayers in this sequence, it is almost definite that the core composition of our prayers is one of asking or requesting. We are always asking for something. There is always a purpose to praying. Is there such a thing as praying without doing anything? Praying by being still?
As the eve mass was said in German, naturally I couldn’t understand a thing. But having been raised a Catholic, I knew very well when it was my time to respond, to say Amen or Praise Be To God or to stand up or kneel when it was time to do so. All without understanding a word. Ceremonies, although sometimes followed blindly, are necessary. There is a time for everything.
More than the formal mass ceremony, the occasion was also free entertainment. Being home to Mozart, Salzburg boasts of these solo and duo opera-like singers who sang in between readings; even the priest presider sang most of what he said. Every thing was perfect — from the choir, to their conductor, to the soloists, pianist, and violinist who performed parts of the programme.
And when the part came when Jesus was supposedly born, the lights were turned off and voices from two sets of singers each standing at the pulpits, echoed in darkness and enveloped the cathedral like it was indeed that same night in Bethlehem, and the only lights you see were from those adorning the massive Christmas tree standing proud at the altar being one of only a few decorations around as the church was already in itself beautiful.
Then Silent Night was sung, in its original German version, in Austria where it was originally composed, and the guitar accompaniment with which it was originally played, on the eve of Christmas, just like how it was originally performed in 1818.
How more blessed could we get!
It was so indescribably beautiful.
The strumming echoed through the domes, across the carpeted halls, in this darkened 17th century cathedral, in Salzburg, Austria, as Christmas day dawned.
I have never witnessed such a thing in my life. And I bet I shared this feeling with the rest of the thousands attending this mass from all walks of life, all continents, all colours, all languages. We all made it here for one purpose, whether we be devote Catholics or plain tourists.
When the mass ended, the bishop, his entire array tailing him, went down, blessed the people, stopped particularly at little people, including my nephew, who was so peacefully sleeping in his stroller, totally innocent of the gesture given him.
When he grows up, he will be told this story for sure.
*This is part of a 68-Day Travel Diary called Reflections of a Nearly Thirty. Read the full Reflections Series here.