Candlelight and music filled the Cathedral of the Ozarks and signaled the beginning of the Christmas season for the 70th year at John Brown University during the Candlelight Services on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Dec. 6-8.
Guests were thankful for not-as-cold weather, as lines formed outside the Cathedral doors nearly an hour before the service started each night.
Once murmuring families and friends got their candles and took their seats, the lights dimmed. A few choir members lit the hundreds of candles lining the aisles and stage, while a brass ensemble played select Christmas carols.
As the strains of music rose from the chamber orchestra near the stage, the Cathedral Choir prepared to sing from the narthex. The 60 or more members lit their candles as administrative assistant Jan Lauderdale straightened bowties and placed runaway strands of hair, and cantors Andrew Laden, senior, and Seth Long, sophomore, got the pitch for “Ave Maria” from conductor Paul Smith.
Heads turned across the congregation as Layden and Long began the Latin introit.
Next, glances followed each choir member down the aisle and up to the stage while they sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
The night continued with selections performed by the Cathedral Choir, directed by Paul Smith, the Chamber Choir, directed by Jake Funk, the Women’s Chorus, directed by Kate Dewey, and the Chamber Orchestra, directed by Terri Wubbena. All these ensembles combined to perform “Carol of Joy,” which featured harpist Joyce Timmons.
Throughout the evening, several congregational carols brought the voices of every person together in a resounding chorus.
Lauderdale was nearly giddy with delight as Layden and Long, along with seniors David Amonsen and Sean Roycraft, and freshman Steven Hamilton, lifted their voices to sing “Silent Night” a capella.
Conductor Smith said he enjoyed the variety of voices, both men’s and women’s, as well as the excellent musicianship of the string ensemble. This is also the first time in as far back as he can remember that an all-student ensemble has accompanied the choir.
Smith said one of the pieces he enjoyed most was “The First Noel” because Paul Whitley is an amazing pianist whose sensitivity in accompanying the choir was much appreciated.
Scripture readings were interspersed between the musical talents and helped to create a worshipful atmosphere. Tracy Balzer, director of Christian formation, and Jim Walters, emeritus professor, shared the duties of reading traditional passages from the books of Isaiah and Luke.
Mandy Moore, director of freshman experience, gave the homily each night. She spoke of the excitement of waiting expectantly for Christmas and the joy that brings. She drew many of her thoughts from her own experiences, such as waiting for Christmas as a child or waiting with her husband, Bryson, as they look to adopt a child from China.
“In a season of waiting, faith does not change, even when the answers are not what we hoped for,” said Moore. “There is goodness in the waiting. That is what makes it all precious. It is not easy, but you can do it, much like a pregnant mother enjoying and being okay with the waiting for the birth of her child.”
Since she is in Cathedral Choir, sophomore Mariah Shaw heard Moore’s homily each service. “I cried every time,” Shaw said.
Moore lit her candle after she spoke. Choir members took her flame and passed it on to the congregation, and soon the Cathedral was filled with tiny, flickering pinpoints of light that together created a dazzling glow. As each person raised his or her candle and sung, the strains of “Silent Night” filled the air once again. When the music faded, flames were snuffed, and the benediction was offered.
Finally, Jan Helmut Wubbena, professor of music, played a reverent postlude of “Still, Still, Still”, an Austrian carol, to end the evening.
Above the congregation’s heads and behind the scenes, the tech crew managed audio, lights and recording.
“I enjoy getting to work with this talent. My job is easy when I work with great talent,” said junior Isaac Elmore, who ran sound. He said it was difficult at moments to pick up sounds without getting feedback and to get those sounds exactly right. The tech crew began hanging the microphones about a week in advance, and Elmore said he spent 12.5 hours on Wednesday working with the system.
Meanwhile, candles must be ordered, programs printed and everything organized. Lauderdale said she ordered about 4,000 candles for this year’s services to make sure the congregation, choir, stage, and pews were all illuminated when the time came.
Smith, who is back to conduct after a year sabbatical, said, “For me it is really all about being with these students. There is something special about being part of a unique college that encourages the kind of community I see in my students. They really do sing with their hearts, their minds and their talents.”