Starry, Starry Night

Midnight Mass at St. Mary's... Hyderabad

In my family, we have a tradition of eating my Mom’s excellent fruitcake after Midnight Mass. It’s a sweet end to the wonderful experience of the evening.

I’m sure Masses in other places around the world are equally spectacular. But, for me, nothing beats Midnight Mass at St. Mary’s Church. If you’re ever in Hyderabad during Christmas time, be sure to check it out.

The night is usually cloudless and stars are visible in the sky. To me, it always seems that on this night, there is one star shining brighter than the rest. And every year it is cold. The men are handsomely dressed in suits and the women in sarees, salwaar kameezes, or dresses, covering themselves with shawls. Everyone wears something to keep warm. At St. Mary’s Parish, the midnight mass on Christmas Eve (actually midnight, come Christmas) is held outside, in the open air, in the parking lot every year.

Some four thousand people attend this mass every year. Special chairs are rented for the service; afterwards, everyone helps stack them back up so that people coming for masses on Christmas morning can park their cars.

It’s not only Catholics who brave the cold and miss their sleep. People from other faiths also attend Mass, sometimes with their Catholic friends, just to get a flavor of the grand event. Some come, ostensibly, to get blessed.

The prelude
People start trickling in an hour early so that they can get seats. Ar around 11:15 PM, the Tamil choir sings Christmas carols in Tamil. The Telugu choir follows them, and then finally the English choir (who sing for the main Mass) take over.

Though the Mass is in English, the two liturgical readings are in Telugu (the language of the state Andhra Pradesh, of which Hyderabad is the capital) and Tamil (many people from Tamil Nadu, the neighboring state, live in Hyderabad).

A beautiful start
When the Mass is about to start, the whole crowd rises and the choir starts singing, as the priests (often eight or ten of them) and the altar servers make their way from the rectory to the main altar. The altar is always beautifully decorated with flowers and set up in front of the main doors of the church. The main celebrant is usually the archbishop of Hyderabad.

This part of the Mass– when the church bells peal almost musically in the otherwise silent night– always gives me goose bumps.

A Little Shorter, Please
After the readings and the Gospel, the main celebrant usually gives a long sermon about the significance of Christ’s birth and what it means in the context of the current situation. Everyone usually notes afterward how long the sermon runs. In fact, some people won’t attend Midnight Mass because they think it’s too long. It’s not easy to stay awake in cold weather, listening to long sermons. If memory serves me right, one year we even had the sermon delivered in three languages!

No way Jose… er, Subramaniam
After the Eucharist is consecrated and the priests are ready to distribute communion, there is an interesting announcement. Since in the Hindu temples, the consecrated food (prasad) is offered to everyone regardless of their religion, the parish priest asks the people from other religions not to come forward to receive Holy Communion.

The final stretch

Once everyone has received communion, the parish priests thanks everyone involved in the ritual and wishes the congregation well. After the final blessing and hymn, everyone wishes likewise to their families and then looks around for friends and relatives to continue in the fellowship. Even stacking up the chairs is fun. By the time we get home, it can be as late as half past two in the morning.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!