by Patrick B. McGuigan
For those who believe the Christmas story, the thirty-third edition of Vespers at Oklahoma City University’s Bishop W. Angie Smith Chapel is about as perfect a rendering of the message of Salvation as can be imagined this side of Heaven. For those who do not believe or who doubt the atonement, this stellar gathering of the musicians, ministers and music of the institution based in the Methodist tradition might still be appreciated as a powerful seasonal gift to the city whose name it proudly bears.
The structure of the performance intersperses traditional prayers with music such as that of Edward Elgar’s Prologue (from the Apostles) where the anointed One promises “to heal the broken-hearted..”
My God is the God of all – the tortured and afflicted, of the consequential and comfortable. He is also the Sovereign of those — in the words of the Bidding Prayer — “who rejoice with us, but upon another shore.” They are the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) who have gone before us, surrounding us but beyond the limits of human sight in this vale of tears.
Perhaps seeing or anticipating that shore in the distance, attendees will join in singing two standards, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” yet be content to listen and marvel over angelic voices, like a comforting wind, of the OCU women proclaiming (a capella) “A Pentatonic Alleulia.”
A reviewer’s tears did not fall until recitation of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Christina Rossetti’s poem includes provocative theology, and this tender conclusion:
“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.”
Like gentle waves, songs unfold the story. Claude Debussy’s “Christmas Carol for Homeless Children,” classic Latin hymns such as “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” and European masterworks like Johann Pachelbel’s “Nun danet alle Gott,” and William Billings cheerful, “A Virgin Unspotted.”
A modern writer, Robert H. Young’s “There is No Rose of Such Virtue” presents what is a core of faith to many, the mystery of the Trinity, a stumbling block to others. What a “wonderful thing” (resmiranda), are the three in one, equal in form (pariforma), leading to joy (gaudeamus) and causing many to follow (transeamus). The message is there, but not all interpret it the same.
What an assembly this is: OCU’s Ad Astra Women’s Chorus, Chamber Choir, University’s Men’s Chorus and University Singers, accompanied by the 2011 Vespers Orchestra. Performers were led variously by Randi Von Ellefson, Judith Willoughby, Melissa Plamann, Benjamin Nilles, and John L. Edwards.
Narration came from a quartet of lady ministers: Maggie Ball, Sharon Betsworth, Andy Nelms, and Lisa Wolf.
Friday night’s service was full save for a handful of spots here and there. Adventuresome souls might wish to arrive early to see if seats can be procured (admission is only $10).
The concert ends with “Night of Silence,” a modern (1981) Catholic Advent hymn by Daniel Kantor. As performed by the mass ensemble of OCU choirs with both organ and orchestra, the tender lyrics provide a soothing finale to the magnificent spirituality of the Vespers. The song is a “quodlibet” – meaning it can be sung simultaneously with another tune.
That other song was “Silent Night,” a gentle coda to the 90 minutes of prayer and peace.
According to tradition, Jesus of Nazareth lived but 33 years, dying in the full bloom of adulthood after a consequential life. The annual tradition of evening vespers at OCU is now but 33 years old. The story it tells of the child in the manger-cradle begins the road to Calvary, and to 21 centuries of confession and conflict, or battles and belief.
Leaving the warmth and light of the chapel, to walk through the cold night beneath a full moon that pushed back the darkness, comfort and affirmation came from believing Daniel Kantor’s words of mystery and grace:
Spirit among us, shine like the 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 await your loving Son.
Concluding today (Saturday) at 4:00pm & 8:00pm: The perfection of Christmas, in Evening Vespers at OCU
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