Daily Prompt Getting Seasonal The holiday season: can’t get enough of it, or can’t wait for it all to be over already? Has your attitude toward the end-of-year holidays changed over the years?
Christmas Eve morning, Brother Hugo spoke to Martin, “Come with us. We are going to the forest to cut a tree and boughs to decorate the sanctuary. The Preceptor arrived last night.”
Martin had no interest in the chapel though all around him saw it as a great boon, a sanctuary for those banished from all others, but his habit had become simply to go along. He followed Brothers Hugo, Lothar and Heinrich outside the gate where a peasant waited with a sled. The sun had finally risen, though fog- bound and dim.
The four lopsided men in long black tunics followed the sled across the frozen fen and into the wood, the ice-covered pine needles clinking like crystal as they passed. Martin felt the forest’s magic pull and filled his lungs with the open air, cold though it was. “Take care, Brother; you are not used to this. You’ll catch your death,” warned Brother Hugo.
They stopped in a small clearing surrounded by pines. With a sharp saw, the peasant cut branches, while the four lepers looked for a fir the right size for the Paradise Tree.
“Will this one do?” called Brother Heinrich a few yards away.
“We may find nothing better.” Brother Lothar was anxious. He and Brother Heinrich were assisting at the mass and he feared they would not return in time.
After a few strikes of the peasant’s axe, the tree fell in a cloud of fresh snow.
Martin and Brother Hugo lay the pine boughs around the base of the altar and set high candelabra and large candles throughout the chapel to light the dark corners. The peasant made a stand for the tree, and Sisters Regula and Ursula tied apples and candles to its branches. For this day, the sisters had sewn a new altar cloth of white linen embroidered in white silk thread, with symbols of worship and the Lazarite cross entwined with grapevines. Benches were set near the front for those who could not stand or kneel. Minutes before the midday mass in which the chapel would be consecrated, the dark room had been transformed.
Martin stood in the back against the wall.
Brother Lothar entered first, swinging a censer to purify the air. He wore the white cape with the black cross of a Teutonic Knight. Brother Heinrich followed, in the black robes of the Knights of St. John, Hospitaller. In one hand, he held a branch of hyssop and in the other a silver dish from which he splashed holy water to cleanse the way.
The Master General entered wearing a sword and carrying an ornate silver cross. On the left shoulder of his black woolen cloak was appliquéd the cross of the Knights of St. Lazarus. He knelt before the altar, then stood to remove his sword and lay it upon the altar. The sword lay beside the gleaming silver chalice, reflecting the light from dozens of candles. At first, Martin could not tell if the Master General were a leper, but the wrappings on his hands answered Martin’s questions.
The Master General then stepped to one side, and the ritual was repeated by the Commander who served as Deacon. Brothers Heinrich and Lothar helped the Commander to kneel and then lifted him to his feet. He removed his sword and laid it on the altar, and made again to kneel. The Master General, who had seen his difficulty, motioned him to remain standing. The Commander bowed to the crucified Christ and said his silent prayer. Brothers Heinrich and Lothar, in their turns, laid their swords on the altar.
“Asperges me,” said the Master General to the Commander who, in reply, dipped the hyssop twigs into the holy water and sprinkled the Master General. “Domine hyssopo et mundabor; lavabis me. . .”
The lepers spoke, together, those who were able, wheezing and hoarse many of them, “Thou shalt sprinkle me, Lord, with hyssop and I shall be cleansed; thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow. Amen.”
The hyssop was used in the Bible, yes, Martin remembered, for cleansing lepers, but these were the words of Mass when all of God’s world was cleansed of the accumulating filth of human life. “Everyone is unclean,” had said the wandering priest of the Zürichberg.
“Have mercy on me, Lord, have mercy on all,” responded the Commander.
“Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.”
Expecting no mercy from God or man, Martin crossed himself in an automatic gesture of pious anonymity.
The Master General offered the Host as a sacrifice to God, and asked for God’s forgiveness. All those around Martin responded, “Amen.”
“Ejus divinitatis esse consortes, qui humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus et particips Jesus Christus Fillius tuus Dominus noster…”
Martin had heard this in every Mass since his boyhood, that Christ was God humbling himself to participate in the bitter, confusing struggle of man. Martin wondered if being human were not more difficult than being God.
The Commander waved the censer over the chalice to purify it before this first communion, purifying it for lepers. No clean lips would ever drink from it.
The air grew heavy with incense, the scent of fresh-cut pine, wet wool and human breath. It took a long time for the lepers to take their communion, and Martin stayed, kneeling on the stone floor, head bowed, eyes closed, his mind dragged through time on the voices, the singing, the words and the smoke of the incense. Confusing present and past, he listened for Michele’s pure Latin accents. The sun broke through the clouds and sent a bright flash through the chapel’s east window, the body of Christ. Startled by light pressing his eyelids, Martin lifted his head. He opened his eyes, but the sun was gone, and he was surrounded not by bright paintings, but by bare rock. Memory and hope collided, and he crumpled unconscious on the stone floor.
This is an excerpt from my novel, Martin of Gfenn. If you like it, you can read more at martinofgfenn.com. In those days, people did not have Christmas trees as we know them, but they did put up what they called “the miracle tree.” It was an evergreen tree with apples tied to it.