|A candle being lit at Vespers.|
Vespers are the evening prayers practiced in many Christian religions. In many New England boarding schools and colleges, vesper services occur only during the Christmas season. I sang in an a capella group in high school. The weeks leading up to Christmas break were always chaotic. The imperious Miss Tsua, our director, demanded two hours practice daily for a month. She demanded our best, nothing less was acceptable. We sang Mozart and Vivaldi and Bruckner arrangements. After we performed our music, our small group of twelve or thirteen singers would be reabsorbed by a larger choral group. The entire chorus would perform traditional carols and seasonal favorites. During college and all the years since, I have loved starting the holiday season by attending a Vespers service. One of the special features of the services is that candles are used in many different ways to serve as a metaphor for the darkness preceeding Christ’s birth. The first time I saw it, in a completely dark sanctuary, one candle was lit. From that one, another and another were lit. We lit our neighbors candles until the entire church was aglow in the yellow warmth of candle light.
Tonight was the Vespers service at the Northfield-Mount Hermon School. I went to that particular service with a friend whose daughter was both in the chorus as well as one of the elite women’s group of voices. The music these high schoolers tackled was difficult -- but not out of reach. I commanded a view of the students and the director. The acoustics in their chapel were splendid. Dulcet tones carried throughout the entire sanctuary. The music resonated; it reverberated through the entire space. The chorus offered their best while accompanied by an accomplished orchestral group. A moving rendition of We, Three Kings was performed on violin and cello. The organist was zealous with the pipes. Intermittently, different readers climbed to the pulpit to recount the biblical readings celebrating the birth of Jesus. The Vespers at Northfield-Mount Hermon drew to a close with the robed students pouring down from the nave in doubles formation. They lined the perimeter of the sanctuary. As they sang Silent Night, the candles in the church were methodically extinguished. One soprano voice crooned a last plaintiff note as the last light plunged the chapel into darkness. At this point, the tears were rolling down my cheeks. There was a rent in the fabric that keeps in the losses and grief and sorrow of the previous year. I know -- all too well -- darkness and its sister, despair.