Last Christmas: Midnight Mass in Myeongdong

I am neither particularly religious nor a friend of mass gatherings in cold halls. Especially on Christmas night, I like to dwell in the solitude of a full stomach, dozing away on a glass of wine or two. Still, last year—or was it the year before?—having nothing particular to fancy, I thought I would mingle a bit with the believers and see what has happened since I last took the trip to the cross. There might even be some wine in for me.

Myeongdong CathedralTogether with a friend, I took the subway to Myeongdong where, just on the hillside above the shopper’s delight, there is a church. Not one of the third-floor-left churches, that are spread throughout the city, marked only by a red rooftop-cross at night. No, Myeongdong Cathedral (명동 대성당) is an impressive landmark, although lacking much of the ornamentation of Medieval Catholicism, possibly the most beautiful non-Buddhist religious facility in Korea (see a lengthy appreciation at The Marmot’s Hole). Built in the late 19th century, the cathedral became notorious as a save haven for political protesters (including protestants) during the era of military dictatorship. It is also home of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Seoul, currently Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk (정진석), who also headed the midnight mass we attended.

Cathedral portalWhen we arrived at 11.30, all seats in the cathedral proper were already taken. We were shown to an adjacent building, a congregation hall that holds several hundred people. We took our place in a back row and had a look at the large canvas on the wall—which threw us right into the show next door.

We saw the main nave where everybody was awaiting His Eminence. An empty stage and the dim reflex of an auratic moment in the making. The camera seemed to be left behind at first, forgotten by a helping hand dozy from the looming smell of incense. Then the image began to move, guided by invisible hands, flew through the aisle, and there he was, together with his entourage, carrying candles and tomes and the weight of the world, as everywhere else along the roads that all lead to Rome.

But no! This was not what we saw. In fact, we first took a trip behind the scenes of the show about to begin. Old men helped an even older men (recently turned 80) into his gowns, layer by layer, minute for minute. Over in our place, younger men in white cloaks tried to cheer the locked out crowd into the right mood, practising a few tunes such as “오늘 우리 구원자, 주 그리스도께서 태어나셨다” (“today Lord Christ, Our Savior, was born”), lyrics we would soon hear live from around the corner.

The mass began when the clocks strucked twelve. We stared at the silver screen together, like in a movie theatre. Fortunately, I could follow the Arch Bishop’s sermon rather well, as he was speaking slowly and the script clarified the predictable content.

Nativity sceneAlthough the camera crew made an effort to offer some distraction—frequent cross-cutting to the nativity scene outside, close-ups of congregants praying or singing, as well as the shaking hands of the Arch Bishop holding the grail—, I grew a bit tired of the broadcast which was only interrupted by short scenes of half-hearted collective action on our side, such as raising, praying, and call-and-answer with the voice from next door. A bit like the public viewing of a soccer match, just without the suspense of unpredictable happenings.

Screen outside the cathedralFor me it was the first time to attend the “televised” version of a ritual so explicitly based on bodily co-presence such as the Eucharist. In fact, the same transmission could be seen outside of the cathedral, too, on a screen mounted onto a truck. But as the mass progressed, some interesting feedback-effects broke into the stream of images—moments of sudden liveness in the midst of an almost fully mediatized event:

  1. a shared reluctance to sing on our part, possibly because what seemed to be a thousands throats sounded from the speakers, which was overcome only by few brave voices at first, until the recognition of well-rehearsed tune (“오늘 우리 구원자…”) made us all join in, bringing the game back home and, in the process, drowning the rest;
  2. a yawning choir boy who, thanks to the camera not cutting away, produced a lot of laughter on our side of the mirror (fortunately, he’ll never know);
  3. a kind of awkward experience of self-externalisation when the hosting Arch Bishop extended his greetings “also to all foreigners: Merry Christmas!” and, applying the  shot/reverse shot-formula, the camera focused onto a solitary “foreigner” who (supposedly on the air, unaware) promptly responded as expected;
  4. a rather abrupt inflow of reality when the collection basket was passed around and people rose up to get their sip of the wine, which someone had brought from next door (we joined the majority who left early, though)

Film set

Once again, I thought as we passed the camera crane set up in the church yard and saw it panning towards the illuminated cave, completing the cycle of images one more time, it turned out that what I take for real is rooted in blood and money. No sweat and no tears this last Christmas.

— 24 Dec. 2010 (金)

— In loving memory of Tante Irma (1926–2011) —


About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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One Response to Last Christmas: Midnight Mass in Myeongdong

  1. Pingback: What is the Difference between a Catholic Wedding and a Full-Length Pansori Performance? | Seoul Stages

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