I have been sort of waiting for the feeling of Christmas to kick in. I don't know if I've been in a fog because of various work projects and the stuff of life, but I haven't decorated my house, and I've only just started buying some gifts.
But last night it all washed over me. I went to Providence Hall's Service of Lesson and Carols. Since I had never gone to a service like this, which is an Anglican tradition, I had no expectations. Let me tell you, I was utterly, completely blown away.
I won't even begin to try to recreate the evening. For a rough sense of the history of this tradition and what the repertoire was like, you can look up Lessons & Carols on Wikipedia, I suppose. But uniquely, the choral director selects the songs. And our presentation was done with a combination of two choirs -- the Laudate Children's Chorus, a precious group of seventeen children ranging from 5th through 8th grades, bracketed by the Chamber Choir and larger Chorale of Providence Hall. Plus the audience (congregation) participates throughout as well, joining the choirs in singing various Christmas carols.
I had limited expectations also because we are a small school. Thirty-eight of our 75 students are in the choral program. To be honest, I wondered how much talent we would be able to generate!
I was stunningly wrong. I told someone afterward that I have sat through a TON of concerts in twenty-eight years of youth ministry, but I have never listened to choir concert where the students actually believed what they were singing!
The evening got off to an amazing start before it even began: the sanctuary, a classic Episcopal stone church with a high ceiling, which seats 400, was overflowing right before we started. Some staff had to scramble back to our school, two buildings away, to grab as many folding chairs as we could to seat the overflow. The service started with the quiet scraping sound of folding chairs on cement muffled in the back.
I was one of the readers designated to read the lessons: my passage was from Isaiah 11:
The Branch From Jesse1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—
3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
9 They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
This passage was a gripping reminder to me of how desperately our world needs true shalom, the peace of God. This is not peace as the world gives, which is temporary, usually resulting from a narcotic or distraction, or from an uneasy truce, where both sides still hate one another, but agree to stop the conflict for a time. God's shalom makes things right. There is resolution.
That was expressed as well in this service as the choirs sang the Hope for Resolution: a breathtaking combination of two songs: the classic carol Of the Father's Love Begotten, combined with an African Zulu Freedom Song called Thula Sizwe.
The Hope for Resolution started quietly, with the Laudate Children's Choir singing the Christmas carol in their gentle, hesitant, childish voices...
Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!
This carried on for several minutes. I was sitting close. Their faces, concentrated and animated as they sang, consumed my entire attention.
Then the Providence choir eventually folded in with Thula Sizwe, a thumping, driving chant. Initially you cannot understand how these two songs work together. But quickly they weave as one, the words and songs braiding together:
Do not cry
Will protect us
We will get it
Will protect us
The students rocked back and forth, wrapped around the children like a shawl. The little ones stood straight and attentive, using every fiber of their beings to stay on pace with the song as the larger and older choir rocked around them.
I'm glad I did. This is Advent -- celebration of that first coming, the burst of God becoming man and invading the mess we have made, bringing the gospel of hope and purpose. Yet ultimately we were left behind, so in this celebration we also desperately await His return. In other words, we hope for resolution. Where all is made right. Where seemingly dissonant peoples come together as one in worship, delight and true PEACE.
May it be so. Happy Advent and Merry Christmas. Lord Jesus, come quickly.
(For a taste of the evening, listen to this far larger and more advanced choral performance of the two songs. Its grandiosity captures some of the power of my smaller, more intimate but live experience last night.
Since I posted this at first: a parent shared his taping of the service. Here it is. Not the same as being there, but certainly wonderful.)