BCNBlog: Caesar Augustus at Midnight Mass

Last evening we attended Midnight Mass at the Royal Monastery of Pedralbes, which my family has had an association with for some centuries.  We have a private chapel where we sit when we attend mass there, tucked between two of the buttresses of the 13th century structure and raised up a bit from the main floor of the church.  It is separated by a gated, wrought-iron screen from back in the days when the gentry had to be seated separately from the regular churchgoers.  One can attribute this to snobbery, or to a recognition of the fact that there are, in fact, strata in society, but either way it is a somewhat unusual experience in the present age.

Heating in medieval Europe being more of a fantasy rather than a reality, it was very cold sitting on an ancient, massive carved seat with a high canopy back, although the nuns did provide us with a space heater that at least sent out a little bit of warmth.  Most of the people in this well-to-do part of Barcelona attending the mass kept their fur and cashmere coats on, though it was not quite so cold that you could see your breath.  Still, it always makes the experience very atmospheric, as if the beautiful Gothic building itself was not atmospheric enough.

The mass was celebrated in Catalan, which I can understand though do not speak with anywhere near the fluency I do Castilian (more commonly referred to as “Spanish” in the rest of the world) but I used my Catalan missal to follow along with the responses. During the reading from the Gospel of St. Luke on how the Birth of Jesus came about, I was suddenly struck by the reference to the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, and the census that brought the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.  In America, ours is such a young country compared to much of the rest of the world, that the Holy Land and the Roman Empire seem very far away, both in time and in space.

Here in Barcelona, however, if you take one of the tiny streets behind the apse of the Cathedral in the Old City, you will come across a courtyard containing a number of standing columns and part of the ceiling of the Temple of Caesar Augustus –  the man himself, as it were.  Barcino, as the city of Barcelona was originally known, was most likely founded by the Carthaginians, but certainly by the time of Jesus it had become a Roman colony.  The ancient structure dedicated to the man who participated, unknowingly, in God’s plan of salvation by ordering the census that caused Christ to be born in Bethlehem, is a powerful reminder of the fact that Barcelona is not only the hip, modern city so popular with tourists, or the Medieval powerhouse of shipping and conquest that it once was, but it is tied to both the classical past of the West and to early Christianity in a very tangible way.

After mass two of my siblings and I decided to walk part of the way back to our flat in the center of town, as the neighborhood of the monastery is up in the foothills of the mountains that demarcate the northern end of the city.  As we walked downhill, and the bells of the many churches and chapels around the city started pealing to celebrate the arrival of Christmas, we could also hear people setting off gunpowder up in the hills and mountains, as Catalans have always done.  It is a wonderful tribute to the joy of the Incarnation that still resonates here, at least in some quarters.

When we got home we engaged in a long-standing family tradition of drinking cava – the Catalan version of champagne – and eating all sorts of typical cookies and sweets from Catalonia, as well as American-style decorated Christmas cookies which we always take great pains to decorate elaborately, even when we are celebrating Christmas outside of the United States.  It is a way of toasting the commemoration of Our Savior’s Birth, and also for the family to wind down the evening together before heading off to bed and the anticipation of gifts and a good lunch the next day.  Perhaps it is a Barcelona tradition that ought to be more widely practiced in the United States and elsewhere.

In the end of course Christmas is not about anything else but the Birth of Jesus, no matter what secularists or commercial vendors would have you believe.  None of these traditions would mean anything of any substance, if it was not for that great miracle 2,000 years ago in Judea.  And so in some ways, we have to be grateful to Caesar Augustus for having set the wheels in motion that made Christmas happen as it did.

My best wishes to all of my readers for a Happy and Blessed Christmas – Bon Nadal!

14th Century Statue of the Madonna and Child at the Monastery of Pedralbes, Barcelona

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