What's the real meaning of Christmas? It's Luke 2:10-14: "And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.' . . . Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
That's the real meaning of Christmas: the birth of a savior and the promise of eternal salvation. Yet in these postcapitalist times, when purchasing vast quantities of worthless junk to relieve seasonally affected emotional disorders is socially compulsory, contemporary Christmas celebrations sometime seem utterly incommensurate with the holiday's spiritual significance. Jesus would weep.
And the situation's just as bad in contemporary Christmas music. Consider some of postwar America's contributions to that magnificent canon. Instead of another Christmas Oratorio or Messiah, we get "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." Bach and Handel would weep.
St. Andrew's, the Episcopal church on Division just north of Huron, knows the real meaning of Christmas. In its annual Festival of Lessons and Carols — held this year on Sunday, December 17 — the St. Andrew's adult and junior choirs, the St. Dunstan's Bell Choir, and, at appropriate points, the entire congregation become wholehearted participants in a communal retelling of the story of salvation through scriptural readings and carols from the rich repertoire of Anglican sacred music.
Based on a 120-year-old sequence mixing the intimate with the exalted and the meditative with the exultant, St. Andrew's service will start at 4 p.m. — just in time for December's soft, gray dusk — with a treble soloist leading a procession of choristers who sing the haunting "Once in Royal David's City." Among other carols in the service, the junior choir will perform Handel's glorious "Come, Jesus, Holy Son of God," the bell choir will perform the mysterious "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," and everyone together will perform Vaughan Williams's marvelous "Sussex Carol."
When so many churches in Ann Arbor today seem to be scaling back on sacred music programs, it's good to know that St. Andrew's remembers the real meaning of Christmas. First Baptist and First Presbyterian, which present their Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, are in this exemplary company too.
[Review published December 2006]
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