Irish Philadelphia

The Web guide to Irish music and culture in and around the Quaker City

Sunday, December 04, 2005

O Night Divine

A thin sliver of moon peers through bare, snow-flecked branches over the cemetery at St. Thomas' Church in Whitemarsh. Venus hangs alongside. It looks like a silver asterisk.

Inside the church, the
Celtic Service is just beginning, marking the second Sunday of Advent. Candles line the aisles. On the altar, in the center, stands a large stone Celtic cross. On a cold, dark night, this warm, bright church seems the perfect place to be.

The church is maybe half full. I'm a bit late, and the Rev. Mary Jo Melberger is already leading the congregation through the opening sentences:

Come, God,
We know you are near.
The sound of your footsteps sets us dancing.
Help us to praise and worship you.

St. Thomas' has been hosting a Celtic Service for about a year. I had often thought about attending. Advent seemed a good time to see what it was all about.

A few years ago, we took a short vacation in a little town called
Ballyvaughan, tucked between Galway Bay and the Burren. On Sunday morning, we strolled down to St. John the Baptist Church for Mass. Of all my memories of our all too brief stay in West Clare, that simple service stands out.

I had heard the "Our Father" recited in Irish, but I had never heard a congregation sing it. I heard it for the first time that morning as the townspeople raised their voices in song, led by Father Des Forde. And no, they didn't sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir--far from it. But the rough edges of their singing only made the song more beautiful.

At the offertory and again following communion some local kids up in the choir loft played traditional tunes on tin whistles, flutes and concertina. In the Philadelphia Archdiocese, probably "The South Wind" and "Inisheer" would not be allowed--too secular. But on that day in that church, it all seemed entirely appropriate.

That Mass still stands out in my mind as an example of what an Irish Celtic worship service should be like--quiet, contemplative, and subtly traditional. I knew that the service woul
d not be the same at St. Thomas', but I was hoping to recapture the spirit--literally and figuratively--of that service.

Rev. Melberger reads from Psalm 85:

Righteousness shall go before him,
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.

We all sit at the end of the reading, as harpist Melia Repko begins to softly play a slow air. After that, we all stand together and sing "When Love Is Found," led by cantor Rebecca Carr.

The church is about half full. We all sit silently, breathing slowly, conscious of little else except a calming blanket of quiet as Rev. Melberger leads us through a few moments of contemplation. I am not by nature a contemplative person, but it seems the most natural thing in the world to do to just surrender to the moment.

St. Thomas' is a simple stone structure, about 150 years old. The property on which it stands is older still, with grave markers in the cemetery dating to the 1700s. The hill atop which this, the third church to be build on this property, stands was even the site of skirmishes after the Battle of Germantown during the Revolutionary War. The church history notes that the property changed hands several times during that conflict.

As old as the church is, the liturgy seems ancient, taken as it is from
The Pattern of Our Days: Worship in the Celtic Tradition from the Iona Community and Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community.

The lights inside are turned down low, and the candles cast flickering shadows on the tile floor.

Before I know it, we have celebrated communion. The cantor has sung "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" to the soft accompaniment of the harp.

And now we are all standing together one last time and singing "Go My Children With Thy Blessing"--a hymn sung to the tune of the old Welsh folk song, Ar Hyd Y Nos, or "All Through the Night."

Go my children with my blessing, never alone
Waking, sleeping, I am with you, you are my own

I'm not a textbook Catholic and there are times when I even doubt seriously whether I am much of a Christian. Maybe I make think too much. I certainly question enough.

But here in this church, just a few weeks shy of Christmas, my usually fractious spirit is taking a breather. And like everyone else who leaves the church that night and hurries back out into
the cold, I'm content. And I'm waiting.

— J.M.
Celtic Cross graphic courtesy Aon Celtic Art.

My Five Favorite Celtic Christmas CDs

In no particular order:

The Bells of Dublin (The Chieftains, RCA Victor, 1991)
Perhaps the definitive Celtic Christmas recording. The Chieftains play host to a variety of guests, including Marianne Faithfull, Kate & Anna McGarrigle and others. Always in heavy rotation at our house around the holidays.
Best track: Medley: The Wren! The Wren! Really six short tracks. It's a party.
Worst track: O Holy Night. Rickie Lee Jones is allowed to do something that sounds something like it might be singing but which comes across as more like an whiny air raid siren. What, was Yoko not available?
Most demented track: The St. Stephen's Day Murders. A delightful little ditty about Yuletide murder and mayhem. Play it after the relatives leave.

Winter Songs (Anuna, Danu, 2002)
Lush harmonies. What angels might sound like.
Best track: Winter, Fire and Snow

On Christmas Night (Cherish the Ladies, Rounder, 2004)
Another polished performance by the Ladies.
Best track: The Castle of Dromore

Christmas Rose (Patrick Ball, Fortuna Records, 1990)
Like a holiday Christmas music box.
Best track: The Gloucester Wassail/When Blossoms Flowered 'Midst the Snow (The Christmas Rose)

A Celtic Heartbeat Christmas (Various Artists, Atlantic/Wea, 1996)
My experience with Celtic mixes has not been good. Usually there are two, maybe three listenable tracks, and all the rest are boring. This one's a nice mix, though with only a few duds.
Best track: The Snowy Path, by Altan