Christmas Eve “Midnight Mass” San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral – 52 Churches

A benefit of a high-travel lifestyle such as mine is the opportunity to visit an internationally infinite range of places of worship to visit during the course of the 52 Churches project. This Christmas and New Years found me and my family in San Francisco and since the project was never meant to be geographically restricted, I am trying to use my two weeks in the Bay Area to best effect, with some opportunities to visit faiths not found on Cape Cod and around Southeastern Massachusetts.

Christmas Eve services are one of the two high holy days in Christianity – the other being Easter Sunday – and the result is big crowds of the seasonally faithful. Still, crowds or not, the project was falling behind after missing last Sunday’s opportunity due to travel so the chance to experience an extraordinary church and service was too compelling to miss because of my usual claustrophobic aversion to crowds. I didn’t want to be the pious guy during the Christmas Eve party, but the opportunity to check out a super church was too good to miss.

This section is not meant to be the big Episcopalian discourse of this project, but simply an account of a beautiful Nativity, or Christmas mass conducted at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral – the third largest Episcopalian cathedral in the United States. When I was last in San Francisco in November I happened to drive up California Street to Nob Hill and, my eyes now tuned to look for possible churches to visit, I was captivated by the huge Gothic cathedral which reminded me of Paris’ Notre Dame but is obviously much younger, having been completed in the mid-1960s. I had never visited before, but resolved to make Grace my Christmas Eve stop, assuming a place so grand must put on the full show for the highest of Christian holidays.

Figure 1From Hysterical Bertha on Flickr

I invited my daughter and youngest son who were glad to dress up and accompany their annoying, overweening father on another Quixotic project. Sadly, when we were finally sitting in the nave, both told me it was their first Christmas Eve service – an unconscionable parental omission on my part, but I took some solace in knowing their first would likely be the most unforgettable. We left early for the service as the congregation’s website warned the seats would be all claimed by 10 pm for the 11 pm service. That was indeed the case – the place, including massive banks of folding chairs down the side aisles and behind the permanent pews was SRO by 10:15 and some late arrivals were roped off into the narthex around an immense red drift of poinsettias.

When the cab dropped us off in front of the cathedral and the first thing that caught our eyes were the bronze Ghiberti doors, the “Gates of Paradise” fashioned after the famous set in the south doors of the Firenze Baptistry. My daughter, an art history major on her way to a spring term abroad in Florence, was a useful guide to the panels and the allegorical story they told, but my son was impatient to find a seat and in we went, greeted by a member of the clergy dressed in a long cassock sort of garment that put me in the mind of a French priest giving the Resistance sanctuary in World War II. There were no lines or sign of mobbishness, so we casually stepped into a set of side doors and into a truly awe-inducing, whoa, kind of moment.

Anyone who has read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, or who has studied or visited a great European cathedral can appreciate the impact entering such a great structure must have had on an illiterate peasant in the Medieval ages. Add in some music, the “CGI” effects of a stained glass window, the foreign spiced smells of the censer, and religious services were easily the iMax cinema of their day. I had to stop for a moment after entering Grace to simply absorb the immense space of the nave and let my eyes adjust to the dimmest reaches of the altar at the far end of the space. It was 9:30 pm and the permanent pews were already filled and the folding chairs in the nave were going fast. In accordance with Churbuck’s rule of back-seat seating, we took the second to last row on the aisle and squeezed ourselves in for a long wait. The sixteen-page program held our attention for a few minutes, but I was content to sit still and take in the huge vaulted ceiling, the ribbed vaults, the pointed Gothic arches and the huge columns or piers that supported the distant roof, murky in the pine-scented incense smoke. Spotlights cast down bright splashes of light onto the milling crowd of faithful church goers, which, after the architecture, were the most interesting part of the pre-service festivities.

I am not one to make snap judgments on others attending services, but drawing from personal experience as a teenager (when my Catholic neighbors would invite me over every Christmas Eve for their cocktail party and the obligatory trip to the midnight Mass, where, somewhat drunk and weaving, I would stand in the pews and try to appear pious with my best friend) I know more than a few of the churchgoers had been a wassailing prior to the service. The crowd was festively dressed for the most part. I saw several men with necks swaddled in thick scarves – a sort of sartorial statement in keeping with the Sunday New York Times Style section feature that shows a few dozen random women photographed in the streets of New York wearing plaid jodhpurs — more than couple big floppy bowties, some amazing WASP go-to-hell pants, and three red Santa caps which struck me as semi-sacrilegious as I was taught not to wear a hat in a church. The more obviously intoxicated revelers seemed to be wearing the Santa hats.

My son was complaining about the wait and asked how I could display such reptilian patience. Our Mexican meal a couple hours before was giving him some gas and he, being larger than me, looked painfully crammed into his seat next to a robust woman in a thick red coat with a disapproving stare. I pulled a twenty dollar bill from my wallet, waved it at him as if to dare him to bail out on his own, but the orchestra began to tune and a trumpet started to run some scales and riffs from Joy to the World which offered some hope that the service would begin shortly. I made a note to return during the daytime to see the stained glass windows (one apparently has Einstein’s famous formula tucked into one spot).The murals on the sides of the church caught my attention. One panel showed flames and valiant fire fighters, I surmised it depicted the great fire that followed the earthquake of 1906. Another panel showed some 49er’s standing before a modest chapel. I thought about my 49er ancestor Captain Thomas Chatfield, and marveled at what he would have seen in 1849 when he arrived in San Francisco Bay aboard the whaler Massachusetts and headed east into the Sierra goldfields and the Mokulmne Bar. He was not a religious man, but he doubtlessly had looked up at Nob Hill from Rincon Bay at the base of Montgomery Street up at the simple wooden chapel that preceded the gigantic stone edifice his great-great-grandson and great-great-great-grandson and daughter were sitting in 150 years later. The progress that developed in those 150 years – from arriving in a bluff-bowed whaling ship to a seven hour flight in a Boeing 757 – from letters written and delivered home two years after being posted to the man sitting ahead of me with a smartphone streaming video of the service through UStream…. My children were not inclined to speculate on such wonders and continued to fidget and roll their eyes at me.

A quick historical digression on the history of the Grace Cathedral as cribbed from Wikipedia:

Its ancestral parish, Grace Church, was founded in 1849 during the California Gold Rush. The cathedral is the daughter of historic Grace Church. The first little chapel was built in the gold rush year of 1849, and the imposing third church, for a time called Grace “Cathedral”, was destroyed in the fire following the 1906 earthquake. The railroad baron/banker Crocker family gave their ruined Nob Hill property for a diocesan cathedral, which took its name and founding congregation from the nearby parish.

Mark Twain was to satirize the church’s efforts to find a short-term rector in the 1860s and 1870s. Among the short-term rectors were roll film inventorHannibal Goodwin and James Smith Bush great-grandfather of former US President George H. W. Bush and great-great-grandfather of former US President George W. Bush.[2]

Dean J. Wilmer Gresham nurtured the young cathedral and work began on the present structure in 1928. Designed in French Gothic style by Lewis P. Hobart, it was completed in 1964 as the third largest Episcopal cathedral in the nation”

The children squirmed: “Don’t you feel bad taking a seat from someone who might actually be religious?” It was a valid question. I dodged it by explaining that a) I am a confirmed Episcopalian, so technically I was playing on the home field; b) the aforementioned tenuous and specious 49er connection; and c) the anthropological project known as this 52 Churches Project gives me some visitor’s license. But yes, I was taking up space as a guest in a magnificent church on the biggest night of the year. I decided to drop a twenty into the collection plate to assuage any squatter guilt.

The Service

The cathedral continued to fill and fill. An extensible barrier like the line controls at airport security was erected by the ushers to keep the late arrivals back from the main aisle. At 10:30 pm the music began, and the crowd settled down in great seriousness to listen to the unamplified orchestra and choir play through some appropriately classic and ancient Christmas Tunes. No “Jingle Bells Rock” or other commercial travesty, but very pretty and ancient tunes that made all well with my restless spawn. The choir was a bit faint ( we were sitting in the second to last row) but the orchestra played flawlessly and the acoustics were marvelous, no echo or strange reverberations, but a soft sound that in its natural amplification forced the crowd to be still and quiet to hear and understand it. For half an hour the orchestra and all-male choir performed Ding Dong Merrily on High, Patapan, Noel Nouvelet, The Holly and the Ivy, There is No Rose of Such Virtue, and Masters in This Hall.

The organist jumped in at one point and played a little digression that filled the cathedral with an alarmingly loud and thunderous blast of music from the set of pipes behind us under the great round stained glass window. As the choir finished their final prelude tune the organ began to noodle and fill the air with ornate little tunes as some activity began to take place far away in the darkest shadows behind the altar in the adjacent porches.

We all stood like a baseball park Wave that started in the front of the church. To stand was a relief and one could feel a big collective sigh rise from the knees and backs of the faithful who had been sitting for two hours. It was 11 pm and the organ started in with Come All Ye Faithful. It was time to sing. Down the starboard aisle I could see a silver cross on a pole bobbing along. The Processional was coming.

Standing as I was on the aisle, I had a very loud and personal vantage on the procession of choir, deacons, presiders, Reverends, readers, homilists, and Bishop. The curved mitre hats were amazing; and in the grand liberal tradition of Episcopalians, every ordained member of the procession outdid the next with a scarf or vestment patched together with more colors and embroidery than a hippy’s denim jacket. [note to self, digress on religious textiles and vestments in the near future.] The crowd was putting full lung power into the third verse of the hymn and the choir, as it walked past me, was pitch perfect to my tone-deaf ears, their skill accentuated by the atonal fall off in vocal skills as the clergy brought up the rear. There were many poles in the process: some with curved hook things, and of course the big one with the Cross. There was a big silver Bible held over head. A tall bearded man in a white floor length robe swung the censer right next to my left leg, spewing a thick plume of some exotic smoke. The old cynics adage that Episcopalians are Catholics who get divorced came to mind. This was some serious pomp going down in the aisle of Grace Cathedral and I was glad to see it.

The processional slowly cruised up the center aisle. I thought of the satire on the Roman victory procession in Rocky & Bullwinkle’s “Fractured Fairytales” – all that was missing was vestal virgins tossing rose petals. There were easily three dozen people in full religious regalia. My mind flashed (as it always does in church) to the thought that this procession had been, or was, being repeated around the world in little churches, chapels, and cavernous cathedrals as the world’s pious Christians gathered to celebrate the birth of the Messiah. (Afterwards I learned of the unfortunate incident in the Vatican City, when the Pope was knocked down by a deranged person during his procession to the altar during the evening mass). An usher chased after the procession scolding multimedia morons who were taking phone videos and eyeblasting flash photos. (All my photos were shot pre-music during the great wait)

As we continued to sing the procession found their places. The choir filed back into the choir’s place and the bishop and his attending Reverends took their place behind the altar. They genuflected – the old “spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch” maneuver I generally associate with Catholics and the tune was over.

The bishop sang, in that peculiar but familiar holy sing-song religious voice: “Blessed be the one, holy, and living god.”

We sang back (or tried to, I can’t read music to save my life and made my daughter crack up with laughter): “Glory to God for ever and ever.”

This was an interactive multimedia service. Between the architecture, the thundering of the pipe organ, the costumes, the smell of the censer, and the call-and-response liturgy … well, if I were an illiterate serf this would have been the opiate of my masses. There was never any applause, the congregation was respectful.

The service that followed was very efficient, very simple, and very heart-felt. It was Christmas. There were no lessons of sadness, no intricate deconstructions of scripture, and relatively few mentions of contemporary secular affairs. It was celebration time. Shepherds were afraid in their fields. Kings came a riding. No room at the Inn. The familiar words in the gospel according to Luke that told, with poetic simplicity of the birth of Jesus Christ, were read by a woman as the immense bronze Ghiberti doors were swung open so the gospel could be proclaimed to the world. She read, standing on a small foot stool placed in the center of the aisle, on an ancient glyph called the “Chi Rho.” I could hear the city sounds behind us, and felt the night’s cold breeze as the reader read us the story we knew very well.

The doors swung shut. The gospel procession wended back to the altar and the Right Reverend Peter James Lee gave a very short sermon that ended with the ringing words: “Merry Christmas.”

The congregation stood and recited the Nicene Creed, the ancient affirmation of faith that dates back to 325 AD and the time of Constantine the Great: “…On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father, and his kingdom will have no end …”

The Bishop, Rev. Marc Handley Andrus, sang a prayer, again in his sing-song liturgical voice. The congregation sang God Rest You Merry Gentlemen and the baskets were passed for the offering. The Bishop sang a prayer, we sang back. If he had been singing in Greek or Latin then the scene would have be complete. As it was the ceremony carried an extremely ancient feeling of mystery and timelessness. We finished off by singing the Lord’s Prayer (something I have not done before), again in the rising and falling weird singing voice that threw me and my son into atonal disaster. A few “Alleluias” and it was Communion Time.

Communion is where I draw the line in my religious meanderings. Somewhere in my teens I made the decision that the process of taking communion and believing in transubstantiation and the turning of wine and bread into blood and flesh of a long dead messiah – symbolic as it was – was where I would break with formal religion and become an agnostic. I have about 40 weeks to belabor and dissect the point, so won’t do it here. But, communion is where it ends for me.

The presider invited the congregation to come to the altar to take communion, but footnoted his invitation with a very interesting request not to dip the Communion bread into the wine for “health reasons.” This act he called “intinct” – a new verb on me that I will remember the next time I watch my son turn a chocolate chip cookie into mush by dipping it into a glass of milk. The presider said if the congregants did not want to take either the bread or the wine they should cross their arms over their chests. The notion — in these pre-apocalyptic days of H1N1, Purell, and people walking around wearing surgery masks– that sharing a sip of Almaden with the cross-eyed dude across the aisle from me who was reading a Japanese anime comic during the service would not be a wise “wellness” decision as my health insurance company would say.

So we left, using our backbencher status to quickly and gracefully slip out into the San Franciscan night into the waiting backseat of a cab. We missed, in our bailout, four choral carols while the congregation took their turns at the altar, and a chance to sing Silent Night and the Christmas service anthem: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing Glory to the Newborn King!

Random Observations:

  • One could make a hobby out of visiting awesome cathedrals, mosques, and temples. They are, architecturally, probably man’s greatest achievement. I mean a super tall skyscraper in Dubai has a fancy lobby and is tall. The rest is all cubicles and conference rooms. A cathedral is pure art and amazement.
  • It is nice to have company while visiting a church.
  • Is becoming the Bishop of California like becoming CEO of a major corporation? Are there politics in the Church org chart?
  • I need to return to the Cathedral on a sunny day to check out the stained glass and the AIDS interfaith chapel, the altar was designed by Keith Haring shortly before his death.
  • There is a big bronze statue on the left as you enter the church that looks like a Botero (he of really fat ladies) that kind of didn’t belong.
  • There was no parking lot, so no snide anthropogical/automotive statements can be made. The congregation was overwhelmingly white, well dressed, but younger than previously experienced.
  • I saw a deadheadish guy with a scraggly beard and a vente cup of something from Starbucks
  • A dog barked inside of the cathedral during the service
  • Peet’s Coffee has a café in the cathedral (hey, Starbucks used to sell caffeine inside the Forbidden City)
  • People who play with phones and cameras during a religious service are heathens who need to be scourged and flagellated. Especially the geek ahead of me who held his Flipcamish thing over his head and turned it slowly around in a complete circle like a periscope stalking a convoy.
  • The choir/music director at Grace Cathedral gets high praise for a perfect program
  • The Decembrists have a song, “Grace Cathedral Hill”. There is a strange YouTube version scored to an anime cartoon here.

Tomorrow? Perhaps the Coltrane Church. Next Sunday, a Latin Mass in North Beach. Still seeking a good Mosque to visit. Reverend Jeremy mentioned one back in Cotuit – somewhere in Oakland.

Merry Christmas everybody and happy New Year

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

8 thoughts on “Christmas Eve “Midnight Mass” San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral – 52 Churches”

  1. why do all episcopal and many methodist ministers have three names?
    Kudos for mentioning “Pillars of the Earth” and the Churbucklettes reactions to Grace
    Merry Christmas All People Churbuckian
    pace over and out.

  2. Having been raised a catholic (catholic school, alter boy, Mom on the organ, Dad on the the lectern) and having been to many, many midnight masses, this made for a great read.

    There’s a cool “ambient” band that made only one CD called Grace Cathedral Park.

    But I do beg you, please go the to Coltrane Church. I would love to hear all about that 🙂

    Merry Christmas.

  3. So pleased our grandchildren accompanied their Dad to this beautiful church in San Francisco. You make us proud!!!

  4. re: church org charts, some years ago the Atlantic (I think) had a cover line “Running for Pope”, which compelled me to buy the issue immediately. (And no, I’m not Catholic.)

    That aside, I think this whole “52 Churches” series is indicative of an intellectual curiosity that frankly is out of date. You should just sit home and watch “52 Episodes of Jersey Shore”. 🙂

  5. As Canon for Administration at Grace Cathedral, I was delighted to find your article during a recent search. It provided a unique insight to us on the impressions of a visitor on at one of our most well attended services. The four services on Christmas Eve and the two on Christmas Day were attended by more than 6,000 people. We often get snippets of feedback from those in attendance but rarely do we get the opportunity to read such well-crafted thoughts.

    And when you are back in San Francisco, we’d love to have you drop for another visit and to introduce yourself.

  6. i am serching for healing prayers my grandmother received from our lord at midnight mass many years ago ‘ please can you help thank you so much

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