December 11, 2018

Advent 2018

"Christmas in Venice"

 

Sloshing through knee-deep water in the middle of the night on some Venetian street--we were not altogether sure which one--I couldn't help feeling a bit guilty.  It had been my idea to attend midnight mass at St. Mark's Basilica, after all.  Chris and our dear friends Philip and Becky Parker had agreed, but still, it had been my idea.  When we decided to spend Christmas in Venice that year, midnight mass celebrated in the Byzantine splendor of St. Mark's was right at the top of my list of things to do.  I love ceremony, and as we trooped over to St. Mark's square on Christmas Eve, I was filled with happy anticipation. 

 

Imagining that the place would be full to bursting, I insisted that we should set out early and find a place to eat close to St. Mark's.  This is not hard to do inasmuch as St. Mark's square is tourist central in Venice.  Unhappily, that means that the restaurants there are mostly of the sort that advertise their menus outside on plasticized posters with pictures of the meals on offer.  Pro tip:  never eat in a place that displays menus of that sort.  The food was so bad that it was actually funny and we left the nasty little tourist trap in hysterics. 

 

At least we were within spitting distance of St. Mark's and in plenty of time.  In fact, it was really too early to go in, so we strolled around St. Mark's square a bit to kill time.  Now, we knew perfectly well that high water, or acqua alta, as the Venetians call it, was predicted for that night.  And, as we'd walked from our B&B over to St. Mark's, we'd heard the sirens indicating that high water was indeed coming and even how high it was going to be.  There are a series of tones that sound through the city, with each rising sound meant to indicate another few inches of water.  There had been a lot of sounds.  People were setting up meter-high wooden gangways all around the square and off into the streets that radiate out away from it.  Well, we thought, we'll get home dry even though water was already gurgling up out of the storm drains around us.  Yes, anyone with any sense would have gone back home.  But I wanted my Byzantine Christmas splendor. 

 

And in just another hour or so, I got it.  The Patriarch (as the archbishop of Venice is called) arrived in the Basilica decked out in shimmering vestments, accompanied by half a dozen other bishops similarly attired and a troop of lesser clerics.  They processed around the darkened interior of the church as incense filled the space that echoed with swelling music, eventually placing a (slight tacky looking but no doubt centuries old and invaluable) little image of the infant Jesus in the crèche before the main altar.  As they did that, the lighting was gradually brought up to illuminate the extraordinary gold ground mosaics of the ceiling and walls, and the music continued to swell.  Yes, a little over the top, but lovely.  Well worth the rubbishy dinner we'd had.  (Though actually, there turned out to be plenty of room in the cathedral, and we could have eaten at a nice restaurant and still arrived in time.)  Then the mass went on.  And on.  Beautiful as the setting was, and exciting as it was to be in this ancient place, I did begin to think about the water rising outside and about my friends whom I had persuaded to come.  (My enthusiasm for ceremony was not universally shared.) 

 

Finally, it was time to leave and we noticed that people who seemed in the know were exiting through a door to the side of the main altar rather than through the narthex.  We soon saw (having decided to follow them) that this was because the front steps were completely flooded.  We stepped directly out onto one of the gangways we'd watched people constructing earlier, and smugly walked along over the water (now at least two feet high) that covered St. Mark's square.  What we soon found, alas, was that the gangways only stretched so far.  We came to the end of the one we'd been walking along and saw that one could either step off it into the water or turn around.  We turned around and set off in another direction.  The gangway stopped in that direction too.  Nothing for it but to step off and into the water. 

 

And so I return to the beginning of my little story.  There we were, lost somewhere in the middle of Venice (which happily is not very big) and giggling with the absurdity of it all.  We tried not to think too much about how filthy the water from the canals actually is and did eventually find our way back to our rooms.  Still laughing.  The mass had been filled with the Byzantine splendor I'd imagined.  Perhaps a bit too much of it.  But, for me, the true joy of Christmas that year was found in the laughter of Chris and our friends as we mucked our way through that dirty water together. 

-- Brian Martine

 

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