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The Christmas Mass, in three acts

Written: December 25, 2014 in New Orleans, LA

One

The façade of the Spotted Cat has been torn down, replaced with a mesh of bare plywood and sagging tarp. The only way you’d even know the place was by rote memory and the crowd of people busily stuffing themselves through the door. Let us go, out of the cold and into this temple.

Inside was warm and drunk and merry. Drinks came easy, and the jazz was laid back and smiling. Everyone – from the stage, to the crowd, to the bartenders – were friendly, and the shots of whiskey grew larger with every order. The Spotted Cat is an institution so deeply steeped in the jazz and the ghosts of a myriad musicians and travelers, that even if they razed the place, you’d still get a headful of swing just standing in the rubble.

Another whiskey and a grin for the road, then back into the cold.

Two

This act was unexpected.

Wandering around Jackson Square, a beautiful voice drifted from the top of the steps across Decatur. Her hands nervously grappling the banister and leaning forward over the vacant street, she sang Ave Maria. Halting, barely audible and shy, but unyielding and powerful in its sincerity, she lofted the vibrant notes in the clarity of the Christmas night. It seemed the very wind had stopped to let the song go on.

I stood, transfixed, at street level beneath the singer until she let go of the last night and retreated. I climbed the stairs to thank her, and found her overcome and embraced by her friends. She sang for her grandmother, for the first Christmas without her.

I gave my brief and embarrassed words of gratitude and retreated.

Three

The hall of St. Louis Cathedral is large, pure, dressed in white, accented with gold and candlelight. The holiday crowd overfilled it, with every pew full and people standing along the walls, in the back, and even in the atrium. The people were silent, only daring to impinge on the choir with only the politest of whispers.

The choir was on the balcony above the entrance, so it remained invisible for majority of the people in the cathedral. Its presence, however, was inseparable from the experience of the place. Its unassuming, unpretentious voice filled the hall with the potent, sourceless voice of the divine.

I find it very moving to see people of faith perform their rituals with simple, earnest genuineness. A countless number of people in the cathedral hall prayed and sang the hymns with expressions of genuine peace and quiet joy in their eyes, even those who found difficulty in the physical acts of standing and kneeling.

The sermon spoke for the need of peace, for the whole world, nations, cities, communities, and individuals, of the heartbreaking violence that takes people away from us daily. Peace means different things in different contexts, but there is an underlying desire for harmony and kindness. It also spoke of the need for silence and reflection.

Epilogue

I walked home feeling wonderfully, thinking on what I had seen and heard this night, and how it all fit together. Life is rarely if ever neat. Sometimes we need to get drunk on sin, and sometimes we need to pray for grace. Sometimes we need the humanity behind us, and sometimes we need the solitude of a cold night. Neither one makes sense without the other.

New Orleans is a city that looks in the dusty corners of your heart to find what you need, rather than what you want.

PS The sin link is NSFW. Of course.

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