By Dan Russo
DUBUQUE — The Bible tells us that on the night Jesus was born, angels sang praising God and wishing good will and peace on earth. Ever since then, music has been an important part of celebrating the Nativity.
You may have missed the angelic voices at the first Noel, but if you’re looking to cap off this year’s Christmas season with deep reflection and great music, it’s not too late. The Lessons and Carols program being held on Jan. 5 at St. Raphael Cathedral in Dubuque is the place to be.
The program will start at 7 p.m. with a prelude beginning at 6:30 p.m.
“I started this service several years ago because I really was captivated by the beauty … of celebrating the birth of Christ,” said James Mendralla, liturgy and music director at the cathedral. “England has probably the finest choral tradition in the world.”
The Anglican tradition of Lessons and Carols follows the form established at King’s College of Cambridge, England, in the year 1918 by Dean Eric Milner White. The service itself simulates a story format beginning with “Once upon a time.”
Through the proclamation of Scripture readings, followed by Christmas carols, the audience hears the entire story of Jesus’ birth with Scripture and music complimenting each other in the unfolding of the story line.
Archbishop Jackels will preside over the program, which will include prayers and a group of five lectors reading the “lessons.”
“The whole atmosphere makes it easier to sit with and reflect on the mystery of God becoming one with us. The timing of it, the week after Christmas, and the place, the beautiful cathedral church, highlights the true meaning of Christmas – not Frosty the snowman, but Jesus the Christ,” said Archbishop Jackels.
The Christmas season starts on Dec. 24 and ends on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which is celebrated in the United States on Jan. 8. The Lessons and Carols program traditionally takes place in Dubuque after Christmas Day, but before the end of the season. It showcases the important role music has played in church life.
“The beauty of the music helps to go deeper in contemplating the unbounded and unconditional love of God,” said the archbishop. “When words are sung they take on an additional dimension, helping to lift the mind and heart to touch the `divine.”
At a recent rehearsal at the cathedral, singers from the parish choir joined with guests to practice the upcoming program, which will start with a hymn called “Once in Royal David’s City.” After practicing, the singers mingled with their songbooks in hand near the altar that has been filled with a Nativity scene, tree and other decorations.
“It’s a prayerful service, and it actually tells a story,” said Ellen Henkels, a cathedral parish member who has sung in the choir for years. “This event really gives closure to the season. They all relive the whole Christmas season.”
She chatted with Teri Fairchild and Sister LaDonna Manternach, BVM, two other singers who have been practicing with the entire group of male and female choral musicians since October to perfect the program.
“It’s working together to give a unified sound,” said Sister LaDonna, who is director of the Archdiocesan Chorale, but prefers being a singer for this event. “It’s a well blended choir. Singing, for me, is a great joy.”
Fairchild first saw the Lessons and Carols program as a spectator and then later joined the choir.
“I think it’s important to keep the art of choral music going,” she said, adding that she feels called to use her musical talent for God.
The program is free and open to the public. In past years, Christians of many denominations have attended and also sung in the choir. After the service, there is a social in the cathedral hall. Mendralla is hopeful the event will help enrich those who attend spiritually.
“I think that God speaks to us through aesthetics, through ritual and the beauty of the art,” he said.
The Lessons and Carols program is still performed every year at King’s College in England and broadcast internationally. It can be heard on Iowa Public Radio, Christmas Eve at 9 a.m. local time. For more information on the event at St. Raphael Cathedral, contact the parish office at 563-582-7646.
Some members of the St. Raphael Cathedral choir and special guest singers practice for the Lessons and Carols program, which will be held Jan. 5. The free event combines classic choral Christmas music with readings from the Gospel. (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)