OKLAHOMA CITY — At the start of Vespers earlier this month, the stained glass windows drew the observance of attendees toward the skies. By the end, repeating a daily inversion of beauty, the warmth of the message and meaning of Christmas had transferred anew into hearts. Only from outside the building could one again make acquaintance with illumined panels drawing collective eyes toward the skies.
Randi Von Ellefson, Judith Willoughby and Benjamin Nilles alternated the conductor’s baton, leading the assembled voices and musicians with professional panache and dignity to honor the moment. The combined voices of the Oklahoma City University choirs – Ad Astra Women, the University Chamber, Men’s Chorus and University Singers – soared in song with congregants, and then in the glorious finale.
Deftly, Organist Louise Bass inter-played with voices assembled on the main altar for “Bless the Lord, O my Soul,” adapted from Psalm 104. Women in the left alcove soared in the French carol for homeless children, “Noel Des Enfants.” Men on the right sang the ineffable message of Divinity joined miraculously to humanity, “evermore and evermore.”
Throughout, the OCU Christmas Vespers Orchestra excelled, notably at its summit in an instrumental named for St. Gregory the Great, composed last century by Ottorino Respighi. A man of deep faith utterly free of venal corruption and worldly ambition, Gregory’s greatness lay both in his administrative deftness in the midst of early Medieval turmoil and in his tender heart, from whence came his enduring homilies, and these words: “The proof of love is in the works. Where love exists, it works great things. But when it ceases to act, it ceases to exist.”
In this performance, the evocative grand melody of tribute to Gregory and the God he worshiped roared with joy, turning alternately somber and glorious, with triumphant melody as prelude to the reading of Scripture: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth.”
Vespers’ momentum continued from that moment. In midst of the sublime roar of Franz Herzog’s composition came a tenderly delivered petition to “receive our prayer” and “have mercy on us.”
Almighty Grace is there, for the hearing and taking, but in the receiving, what of those who willfully cling to the darkness? T.S. Eliot wrote:
“Where shall the Word be found, where will the Word resound? Not here, there is not enough silence. Not on the sea or the islands, Not on the mainland, in the desert or the rain land. For those who walk in darkness Both in the day time or in the night time, The right time and the right place are not here. No place of grace for those who avoid the face, No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice.”
And yet, along with those words, the 36th annual Christmas Vespers from OCU renewed the hopes and the heart of the Season. The evening of poetry and performance unfolded in service of prayers to a righteous God, One embodied in human flesh.
This year’s edition unfolded in the worship space at First Presbyterian on N. Western Ave. Transparent and accessible were messages of inspiration, aglow again in the “tidings of great joy” first unleashed in Heavenly chorus.
Many might judge themselves unworthy, or at least unable to embrace the vulnerability that lies at the heart of faith and its forms of freedom. Christina Rossetti, in a poem read by narrator James A. Pickel, wrote words that have become, for this reader, perhaps the simplest, and most complex, missive heard outside of Sacred Writ:
“What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a wise man, I would do my part; Yet what can I give Him: Give Him my heart.”
The venue, the messengers and the message joined to give hope to the most weary of hearts, in this “Night of Silence.” That is the title of Daniel Kantor’s modern classic, which in the OCU Vespers finale blended with “Silent Night” to reach the heart:
“Cold are the people, winter of life, We tremble in shadows this cold endless night. Frozen in the snow lie roses sleeping, flowers that will echo the sunrise; Fire of hope is our only warmth; weary its flame will be dying soon.
“Voice in the distance, call in the night, On wind you enfold us; you speak of the light. Gentle on the ear you whisper softy, rumors of a dawn so embracing. Breathless love awaits darkened souls; soon will we know of the morning.
“Spirit among us, shine like a star; Your light that guides shepherds and kings from afar; Shimmer in the sky so empty, lonely, rising in the warmth of your Son’s love; Star unknowing of night and day; Spirit, we wait for your loving Son.”
Scent from the candles lingered, moving toward the roof of the soaring interior. Exiting into the cool night of the city, in willing hearts the light and messages remained, pointing the way toward hope, aspirations for unity and personal restoration.