By Jen Sawyer
The music begins in the darkness. The hushed sounds of whispers and creaky pews give way to silence as the choir takes their position along the aisles of the church. One female soloist, no more than 18 or 19 years old, stands holding a single candle that illuminates her face. Her voice pierces the stillness:
Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.
A pause, a drumbeat, and the entire choir joins in for the remaining verses of the hymn “Once in Royal David’s City.” The powerful, harmonizing voices reverberate off the church walls as the flame from the single candle is passed from choir member to choir member until the once-dark church is fully illuminated by candlelight.
So begins my favorite tradition — the annual Fordham University Festival of Lessons and Carols, held at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City. Every year on the first Saturday in December, I gather with friends, fellow alumni and strangers to attend the celebration of music and reflection and kickstart my Advent season with Scripture and song.
The tradition began back in 2005 during my freshman year at Fordham as a way to offer support and encouragement to a few friends in the choir. We all dressed up and took the school shuttle from the Bronx campus into Manhattan, not really knowing what to expect. But when the first notes of “Once in Royal David’s City” rang out and the candlelight spread throughout the church, I felt something shift, quickly realizing I was part of something more special than the simple Christmas concert I was expecting. I listened attentively to the scriptural lessons and reflections, sang my heart out with my friends, and realized I was part of a community coming together in prayer and song to welcome Christ into our hearts.
After graduation, Lessons and Carols became a warm and reliable practice among my group of friends. A few weeks before the annual concert, one of us sends out an email rallying together our fellow classmates, and everyone who’s free and in town gathers at a local Italian restaurant for an early bird dinner of pasta and wine. Then, we walk over to St. Paul’s to grab seats before the church fills up (and it always does) and wave excitedly to people we haven’t seen in years, catching up in 30-second bursts of Where are you living now? / Congratulations on the baby! / I can’t believe it’s been so long.
The program rarely changes, aside from a carol or two, but I always leave with a renewed feeling of community and sense of hope. Perhaps it’s an expected place to find God — after all, there’s Scripture, prayer and music, and it takes place in a Catholic church! Still, every year as the faces of the others around me are slowly illuminated by candlelight, I’m reminded of one of my favorite Anne Lamott quotes: “Hope begins in the dark.” For an hour and 20 minutes, we sing that hope of Christ’s coming into life in the midst of a cold, dark, New York City night.
This year, the cynic in me wonders if it will feel the same. Surely the whole “light in the darkness” symbolism will feel tired and weary in the face of near-constant reminders of our world’s brokenness. But then I’ll sit in that darkened church with my friends and hold my breath during the opening lines of an old hymn that reminds me that our Lord arrived in the midst of filth and fear and in the worst possible conditions, and I’ll get the same chills I always do. I’ll watch the candlelight get passed from choir member to choir member and get misty-eyed thinking about the people in my life who share their light with me every day. And as the bolded program directions instruct me to, I’ll once again stand up and join in the song.
Jen Sawyer is editor-in-chief of Busted Halo. She previously produced video for TV and the web, working for the “The Martha Stewart Show,” ABC, Cooking Channel and Yahoo. She is a member of the Writers Guild of America and wrote for “Good Morning America” before kissing freelance life goodbye. She lives in New Jersey.