Much cries out for our time and attention during the holiday season. And Scrooge that I am, I find that most of the Siren calls for shopping and contrived holiday events leave be colder than the Grinch’s two-sizes-too-small heart or the December weather outside.
But this last week, reluctantly I will admit, I took a small trip with my family to a nearby university. They performed their annual Christmas program with symphony and choir. And within minutes, I was no longer grumbling about the lack of holiday cheer. For what I experienced – a reflection on the Magnificat through instrument and voice – was nothing less than magical, an extended moment, a movement actually, of great beauty.
The program reminded me of another trip, this one several years ago, back to my alma mater, The University of Redlands in Southern California. There, on another chilly (though less so, being So Cal) evening, my wife and I attended the annual Feast of Lights, a Christmas celebration I had attended several times before as a child and a student. But as is the case with certain trips, places and events, coming back as an adult changes in more ways than age alone dictates, how we enter into, understand and appreciate an experience.
The program had similarities to the one I just witnessed here in the Seattle area, only this one, The Feast of Lights, has been going on for over 60 years. It is, as the school calls it, “a tapestry of scripture, poetry, music and drama.” But on this particular evening, it was so much more…
We enter into the large Chapel on a campus of ivy-covered buildings, neo-classical architecture, and memories of all my time here attending as a student. Thus, I go as much out of nostalgia as out of any desire for a Christmas celebration.
We find our seats and then the program begins with music: the symphony plays the familiar Christmas songs and we listen to the vast choir. Periodically the audience joins in singing… all the things you’d expect. But then something different occurs.
The Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke is read, but instead of merely hearing the words, the scene is presented as a tableaux, a living painting. Actors dressed as Mary, Joseph, shepherd, wise man and all the rest stand frozen behind a translucent veil, invisible at first to us until the lights on the outside of their small proscenium space go down and those inside begin to glow, revealing the scene.
As a kid, this was my favorite part, picking out just one of the characters and staring them down in a game to see if I could catch them swaying or blinking. But now, I take it all in, more appreciative of the story behind the scene than any of the technical feats required to bring it about.
More singing, reading and tableaux scenes unfold until it is time for intermission. The evening so far is enjoyable. I appreciate the artistic value and hard work of so many people to pull off something like this. But still, I’m eager for a break, so we, along with several hundred other spectators, shuffle out for fresh air and small talk.
We step outside and peer out into the gloom across the dark Quad that lies before the Chapel, able to discern the large trees silhouetted by distant street lights. After the appropriate break, the herd makes its way back into the Chapel in clumps and spurts, finding our way to our respective seats, individuals all.
And as we settle back for more, we’re suddenly met with something surprising: nothing.
All the lights are extinguished. We sit in complete darkness. I had remembered this part from the past, yet I am unprepared for what happens next…
To be continued…