I'm writing this sitting just outside the airborne chapel on the second floor of KCL’s Strand campus, whilst inside the Christmas service is being held. I’m sitting on the floor, my back against a wall and my legs splayed out before, uncaring of decorum, in a corridor which is as empty as the chapel behind me is full. I'm not suggesting, by the way, not for an instant, that the flock of faithful church-goers who populate the pews within are at all uncomfortable. I'm sure they’re all completely at their ease, just as I’m at my ease here on the floor.
As I first approached I was greeted by a rich wave of Christmas song making its way unimpeded through the wide-open doors but, no sooner had I arrived than the doors were closed by a rather solemn looking man in white. I suppose he wanted to make sure that the service wouldn’t be interrupted by incidental corridor noise, which is of course fair enough, but he’s also had the effect of muting the music for me, the outside listener. Sometimes, when I really want to hear the music, I press my ear against the crack between door and bracket, but I never stay there very long for fear that someone from inside might open the door onto my face.
Every now and again, as I sit here against the wall, someone approaches from down the corridor, or from the stairs that curl down to the ground floor, opens one of the doors incredibly slowly and gently, creeps in and shuts the door just as gently behind. Occasionally, but less frequently, this happens in reverse. For those brief moments when the doors open, the choir music bursts through in full vivacity, as if coming in to true focus, before being muted again as the gap seals itself.
The music is punctuated by instances of speech. I can't make out the words, though, just the continuous bass rumble of English intonations that makes its way through oaken doors. I am, after all, an outsider. The speaker (what should we call him? Orator? Preacher? If this is a service, couldn’t we call him the servant?) isn’t addressing me, but those faithful who attend inside, from whom I’m separated by more than a few panels of wood. The speech rumbles on. A line of verse suddenly flashes through my mind, Christ’s own trefoil blessing, by his birth, death and return to life: as-salāmu ʕalayya yawma wulidtu wa yawma amūtu wa yawma ubʕathu ħayyā. Something stirs in my memory.
It seems to me that this service is actually something special. Every year Christmas dominates December, but in what way? The streets are illuminated by Christmas lights, shops play Christmas pop-songs as customers mill about the aisles and mice pies and mulled wine are being sold everywhere. Starbucks begin serving their drinks in red and green paper cups. Everywhere you turn Christmas exists only as a cynical force used to coerce you to buy more stuff. It’s all so depressing. In the immortal words of Eric Idle: “Fuck Santa, he’s just out to get your dime.” For all that it’s supposed to be a religious celebration, it never seems to escape from that cold-hearted commercialism. There’s never anything more.
But right now, as I sit here listening to the choir singing Gloria in Excelsis, I’m reminded that Christmas can have a greater significance, even for people like me who want only to glory in beautiful choral music. I’m reminded of a moment a few years ago.
It was Christmas Eve then, and a sparse haze of snow was lazily making its way groundwards, the snowflakes dancing about on the breeze before disappearing into the warm, exhaust-fume heated streets. On the pavement outside a Salvation Army brass band played Silent Night whilst last-minute Christmas shoppers finally trudged their ways home. We were all gathered indoors to commemorate the death of Qasim ibn al-Hasan at the Battle of Kerbala, and Haidar Attar’s voice glided through us like phoenix song:
Shmūʕ il-ʕiffa bhāy iz-zeffa, awwalhin bīd il-mukhtār
Shemʕat shāhid bīd il-wālid, thālithhin bīd il-karrār
Rābiʕ shemʕa bīd il-badhʕa
As the young Qasim ventured out onto the battlefield, his death assured, Haidar Attar sang to us of his wedding candles, all upheld in the hands of his dead ancestors. It was a beautiful image. At that moment I could just imagine the candles glowing in the snowfall outside, the snowflakes evaporating as they approached the circle of heat surrounding each flame. But the memory of Silent Night persisted in my mind. Its mellow melody coalesced with the melancholic lament I was hearing and transformed into something transcendentally glorious in my heart. I felt that it really was a holy night, that in this instance of pure, shared, human emotion a wide universe of meaning had opened up before me. For a moment I glimpsed the broader Christmas, a Christmas unobscured by the blanket of frantic consumerism that usually covers it up. My soul ascended that night.
The choir are now finishing up with a final chorus of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. It really has been wonderful, as I’ve sat here soaking up the beautiful music that seeped out through the doors. I think I’ll quietly slip away before the throng emerges from inside, noisily spilling out into the corridor. At this moment I’m feeling very transcendent.
10/12/2013 - 18:24
Image credited to http://www.weekendnotes.com/im/006/02/christmas-carols-gold-coast-1.jpg