Dec 5, 2007

The Festival of Lessons and Carols

One of the most remarkable resources in our part of south central Tennessee is the University of the South in Sewanee, on top of Monteagle. It is an Episcopalian liberal arts university often referred to as the "Harvard of the South." The campus, known as the "Domain" of the university is like a transplanted vestige of old England. Gothic architecture and carefully crafted masonry buildings abound. One of the most impressive of these structures is the All Saints Chapel. In my experience, it bears more resemblance to a cathedral than to a chapel. It is a large, elegant house of worship.

About twenty years ago a friend named Kay Campbell asked if I had ever been to "Lessons and Carols." A little explanation was needed as I had never heard that term before. According to the Sewanee Web page on the subject, "The service was developed from ancient forms of worship and adapted from a service which has been sung annually at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England, since 1918. Through music and readings, the Festival of Lessons and Carols explores Christian themes of God's Advent and Incarnation in Jesus Christ.During the service, the University Choir sings carols appropriate to the season of Advent and Christmas after the reading of each lesson. In this service, we attempt to present the double meaning of the Advent season."

That first year, Kay, Margo and I, and two other friends ascended the mountain (about fifty miles from our home) in the midst of an ice storm. We had been told by Kay to dress warmly, and we were glad we had as we lined up and waited in the blustery weather to enter the church. The students of the university served hot cider and cookies to those in line. When we finally entered the church, it was breathtaking!

The columns were wrapped in garlands of evergreens and the scent of balsam and incense filled the air. Candles were everywhere. A single electric beacon shone down on the advent wreath, which hung above the transept crossing. We took our seats in anticipation of what was to come.

At exactly 8 PM the largest of the huge bells in the 130-foot Shapard Tower began tolling. Soon, a lone soprano voice was heard in the rear of the great space. As she announced the good news, she was gradually joined by a mixed choir that soon processed down the center aisle, each member carrying a luminary. The sound of the choir swelled to fill the sanctuary as more and more choristers entered the rear of the church to join the procession. Priests and acolytes followed in elegant vestments, accompanied by a cross and pennants. The participants proceeded to the chancel, where they found their seats.
The next couple of hours were filled with nine scripture readings interspersed with appropriate inspirational music. The choir, under the direction of Dr. Robert Delcamp, was exquisitely trained. The musical selections were varied, ranging from melodies with roots lost in antiquity to contemporary selections. All were performed flawlessly. Before long, and far too soon for my taste, the choir was processing down from the altar and surrounding the congregation with the strains of "Once in Royal David's City." The whole experience is too much to adequately describe.

Over the years, I've taken other people to the event, braved snow, sleet, and freezing rain, and never regretted going. Some years have been variations on a theme, with a brass quintet or other instrumental complement to the music. It's always exciting and inspirational. Mary Ann and I have enjoyed it the last three years.

This year, because I am working in Connecticut, I missed The Festival of Lessons and Carols for the first time since Kay introduced us to it. I miss it and can assure you Mary Ann and I will be there next year. It's the perfect way to start the Christmas season.

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