The Mass in Literature, Part 5

Midnight Mass in the Austrian mountains:

At last we came to a wide road, where we could walk side by side, and now and again we heard sleigh-bells. The torch had already burned right down to the cowman’s hand, and he kindled another that he had with him. On the road were visible several other lights—great red torches that came flaring towards us as if they were swimming in the black air, behind which first one and then several more faces of the churchgoers gradually emerged, who now joined company with us. And we saw lights on other hills and heights, that were still so far off we could not be sure whether they were still or moving.

So we went on. The snow crunched under our feet, and wherever the wind had carried it away, there the black patch of bare ground was so hard that our shoes rang upon it. The people talked and laughed a great deal, but this seemed not a bit right to me in the holy night of Christmas. I could only think all the while about the church and what it must be like when there is music and High Mass in the dead of night.

When we had been going for a long time along the road and past isolated trees and houses, then again over fields and through a wood, I suddenly heard a faint ringing in the tree-tops. When I wanted to listen, I couldn’t hear it; but soon after I heard it again, and clearer than the first time. It was the sound of the little bell in the church steeple. The lights which we saw on the hills and in the valley became more and more frequent, and we could now see that they were all hastening churchwards.

The little calm stars of the lanterns floated towards us, and the road was growing livelier all the time. The small bell was relieved by a greater, and this one went on ringing until we had almost reached the church. So it was true, what grandmother had said: at midnight the bells begin to ring, and they ring until the very last dweller in the farthest valleys has come to church.

The church stands on a hill covered with birches and firs, and round it lies the little God’s-acre encircled by a low wall. The few houses of the village are down in the valley.

When the people came close to the church, they extinguished their torches by sticking them head downwards in the snow. Only one was fixed between two stones in the churchyard wall, and left burning.

And now from the steeple in slow, rhythmical swing, rang out the great bell. A clear light shone through the high, narrow windows. I longed to go into the church; but Sepp said there was still plenty of time, and stayed where he was, laughing and talking with other young fellows and filling himself a pipe.

At last all the bells pealed out together; the organ began to play inside the church, and then we all went in. There it looked quite different from what it did on Sundays. The candles burning on the altar were clear, white, beaming stars, and the gilded tabernacle reflected them most gloriously. The lamp of the sanctuary light was red. The upper part of the church was so dark that one could not see the beautiful painting of the nave. Mysterious shapes of men were seated in the chairs, or standing beside them; the women were much wrapped up in shawls and were coughing. Many had candles burning in front of them, and they sang out of their books when the Te Deum rang out from the chancel.

Sepp led me between two rows of chairs towards a side altar, where several people were standing. There he lifted me up on to a stool before a glass case, which, lighted by two candles, was placed between two branches of fir trees, and which I had never seen before when I went to church with my parents. When Sepp had set me on the stool, he said softly in my ear, “There, now you can have a look at the crib.” Then he left me standing, and I gazed in through the glass. Thereupon came a friendly little woman and whispered, “Look here, child, if you want to see that, somebody ought to explain it to you.” And she told me who the little figures were. I looked at them. Save for the Mother Mary, who had a blue wrapped garment round her head which fell down to her very feet, all the figures represented mere human beings: the men were dressed just like our farm-servants or the elder peasants. Even St. Joseph wore green stockings and short chamois-leather breeches.

When the Te Deum was over, Sepp came back, lifted me from the stool, and we sat down on a bench. Then the sacristan went round lighting all the candles that were in the church, and every man, including Sepp, pulled a little candle out of his pouch, lighted it, and fastened it on to the desk in front of him. Now it was so bright in the church that one could see the paintings on the roof clearly enough.

Up in the choir they were tuning fiddles and trumpets and drums, and, just as the little bell on the door of the sacristy rang, and the priest in his glittering vestments, accompanied by acolytes and tall lantern-bearers, passed over the crimson carpet to the altar, the organ burst forth in all its strength, joined by a blast of trumpets and roll of drums.

The incense smoke was rising, and shrouding the shining high altar in a veil. Thus the High Mass began, and thus it shone and sounded and rang in the middle of the night. Throughout the offertory all the instruments were silent, only two clear voices sang a lovely shepherd-song; and during the Benedictus a clarionet and two horns slow and softly crooned the cradle-song. During the Gospel and the Elevation we heard the cuckoo and nightingale in the choir, just as in the midst of the sunny spring-time.

Deep down in my soul I understood it, the wonder and splendour of Christmas. But I did not exclaim with delight; I remained grave and silent, I felt the solemn glory of it all. But while the music was playing I could not help thinking about father and mother and grandmother at home. They are kneeling by the table now in the light of the single candle, and praying; or they are even asleep, and the room is all dark—only the clock ticking—while a deep peace lies upon the forest-clad mountains, and the Eve of Christmas is spread abroad over all the earth.

The little candles in the seats were burning themselves out, one after another, as the service neared its close at last; and the sacristan went round again and extinguished the lights on the walls and altars and before the pictures with the little tin cap. Those on the high altar were still burning when a joyous march music sounded from the choir and the folk went crowding out of the incense-laden church.

When we came outside, in spite of the thick mist which had descended from the hills, it was no longer quite so dark as before midnight. The moon must have risen; no more torches were lighted. It struck one o’clock, but the schoolmaster was already ringing the prayer bell for Christmas morning.

I glanced once more at the church windows. All the festal shine was quenched, I saw only the dull red glimmer of the sanctuary lamp.

Peter Rosegger, The Forest Farm: Tales of the Austrian Tyrol (1912), pp. 50-54.

(See also Part 1 (last three quoted paragraphs), Part 2Part 3, Part 4.)

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