Dec 15, 2007

How We Celebrate New Year’s Eve at the Monastery

Online Edition:

December 2007 – January 2008
Vol. XIII, No. 9

How We Celebrate New Year’s Eve at the Monastery

by Lucy Carroll

“Monastery” and “New Year’s Eve” are not usually found together in the same sentence. There was a time in my life when I would have laughed loud and long at the thought of experiencing both together, yet as the turn of the calendar approaches, I shall be in the choir loft at our monastery.

In the outside world, in the darkness of midnight, the silence is broken by horns, noisemakers, and cheering. In our little chapel, a single sanctuary bell rings at the stroke of midnight. What better way to bring in a new year than to spend it in the presence of Our Lord?

Of course, at the monastery we are not celebrating a secular holiday but a holy day of obligation. A week after Christmas on the old calendar was the Feast of Christ’s Circumcision. The Holy Family followed prescribed Jewish ritual by having Jesus circumcised in the Temple. Symbolically, the few drops of blood shed would foreshadow the great loss of blood in the passion and crucifixion that Jesus was to suffer.

After the Second Vatican Council the Feast of Christ’s Circumcision was re-named as the solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. It is altogether appropriate to honor Mary during the Christmas octave. It was her fiat, her willingness to accept the Holy Spirit that made the Nativity of Our Lord possible. In the Eastern churches, Mary — the Theotokos or God-bearer — is never pictured without Jesus. In the Carmelite tradition, Our Lady of Mount Carmel always has the child Jesus on one arm.

At the Carmelite monastery where I am blessed to serve, adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament begins at ten o’clock p.m. on December 31 and continues until midnight. The small group of adorers is there on bended knee, giving praise to the Lord of all creation while the world outside engages in happy revels and un-happy excess.

Mass at midnight for the public has been a tradition at this monastery for only a few years. It is the vigil of the feast of Mary, Mother of God, so no additional Mass will be said in the chapel on the morning of January 1.

Because it is the feast of Mary, the music can contain Marian selections as well as seasonal Christmas selections. Because there is a very small congregation and only two or three choir members attend, the chanted Mass parts will be the easier ones: Missa XVIII, Missa Deus Genitor Alme, with a simple chanted English Gloria. Bells, incense, prayer, and song fill the celebration.

How wonderful if this could be done in all parishes! What a wonderful tradition it would be for families to attend a Mass together at midnight, even if the youngsters were asleep in the pews.

Instead of champagne we would receive the very Body and Blood of Jesus. Instead of noise and loud dance music, we would chant the sacred words of the liturgy. How much safer would it be to drive the streets after a midnight Mass than after a boisterous party? How much better to face a new year with Our Lord present within us?

How much better for our souls, for our psyches, to ring in midnight of the new year with a sanctuary bell, and save the party for New Year’s Day?

This is perhaps an unrealistic expectation: it is not an idea that will proliferate quickly. But how wonderful would it be if the opportunity could be there for those who truly want — or truly need — to spend that night on sacred ground?

As for me, late on December 31 I will be in the choir loft at our little pipe organ, thanking the Lord for granting me another year and for bringing me to this monastery, this haven of peace.

Lucy Carroll, organist and choir director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, teaches at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. She frequently contributes essays on Catholic music to AB, and is the creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoons regularly featured in these pages.