Poisson de Noël
Fr. Tony’s Midweek Message
December 23, 2020
I spent my first Christmas away from home when I was 19: I was living in Boulogne-sur-Mer, the ancient seaport on the English Channel from which Julius Caesar had launched two invasion attempts against Britain. I was serving as a missionary of the Church of my youth, sharing an apartment with three other young men. We all felt isolated and lonely, separated from our families at Christmas for the first time each. The worst part about it for me was the absolute strangeness of the holiday as celebrated in France. There were a couple of carols I recognized, of course, but these were all in French or Latin. And greenery and even Christmas trees and lights were to be seen, but much more subdued and tastefully done than the ones I had grown up with. Three of us had received care packages from our parents with familiar cookies and treats; but these were small and limited by our memory’s standards. I was afraid that Christmas was just not going to be real Christmas without all the familiar rituals, foods, and decorations. We shared our meager care packages with each other by putting some of their treats in clean athletic socks we had nailed to a wooden panel near our living area. Instead of our wonted at home Christmas eve devotions, we attended Midnight Mass at the neighborhood Roman Church. We had no way to have roast turkey or roast beef for Christmas dinner, and we expecting a simple pasta meal like the ones we usually had.
But early on Christmas Day, we got a knock on our door. It was our Landlord, a prosperous commercial fisherman. He was still in his raingear, redolent with the odor of the fishing port, just coming back from fishing. He bore a large cardboard box with a Plastic Red Ribbon taped on. “Pour votre fête” he said, smiling, adding that he had chosen this one because it would fit our small oven. He handed us a small branch of fresh fennel and told us to bake our surprise on medium for 45 minutes. We opened the box to find a large rock fish, clearly only minutes from being caught in the ocean. “Fish for Christmas?” we asked ourselves, wondering just how much weirder things would get. But once we had cooked it, sat down, and devoured it (along with fresh baguette and some white asparagus and a little boudin noir our next door neighbor had brought us), we understood why people in Normandy and the Pas de Calais love fresh fish as a staple of their holiday meals. Over the next few days, we made a point of visiting at home our friends and people in our care, including members of the local chess club we attended every Thursday evening. It was the first time I had realized that Christmas lasted 12 days, until January 6.
It was a wonderful Christmas! I learned that the joy and calm of the holiday does not come from familiar habits and routines, but from intentional connection with what the holiday celebrates: God taking on human form and becoming one of us.
Stripping away the familiar had taught me where the heart of Christmas lay.
As we go into this holiday with all the strange and isolating effects of the pandemic, may we not regret what we have lost. Rather, may we rejoice and be glad for what we are able to do to celebrate and honor this day and season.
One of my favorite choral anthems at Christmas is John Rutter’s setting of “What Sweeter Music.” It is a poem that Cavalier poet Robert Herrick wrote just after the monarchy and Christmas celebrations were restored after the Puritans had banned them for 10 years. I love the poem, and have sung it with several different choirs over the years. Sing we cannot gather and sing together this year, I share it with you now, and encourage us all to listen to it at some time during the holiday (many good recordings are available on Youtube).
What Sweeter Music What sweeter music can we bring Than a carol, for to sing The birth of this our heavenly King? Awake the voice! Awake the string! Dark and dull night, fly hence away, And give the honor to this day, That sees December turned to May. Why does the chilling winter’s morn Smile, like a field beset with corn? Or smell like a meadow newly-shorn, Thus, on the sudden? Come and see The cause, why things thus fragrant be: ‘Tis He is born, whose quickening birth Gives life and luster, public mirth, To heaven, and the under-earth. We see him come, and know him ours, Who, with his sunshine and his showers, Turns all the patient ground to flowers. The darling of the world is come, And fit it is, we find a room To welcome him. The nobler part Of all the house here, is the heart. Which we will give him; and bequeath This holly, and this ivy wreath, To do him honour, who’s our King, And Lord of all this revelling. What sweeter music can we bring, Than a carol for to sing The birth of this our heavenly King? --Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
May we all during this season celebrate safely and well. Let us gather with our loved ones by zoom and phone calls. Even during this time of quarantine and isolation, let us reconcile with each other and mend family and friend relationships that have gone bad. Let us celebrate with our whole being, since in Christ our whole being is being made one with God. Merry Christmas, and God bless us, every one.