Last January, the Cathedral of St. Raphael hosted its ninth annual service of Christmas Lessons and Carols (L&C). An Anglican concept steeped in history and tradition, this beautiful prayer form was established in 1919 by the dean of King’s College, Eric Milner-White, in the university city of Cambridge, England. In 2019, the tradition of Lessons and Carols celebrated its 100th anniversary. And not just in England, but throughout the world as churches and academic institutions have adopted the format and made it their own.
For me, this celebration of the 100th anniversary year marked the beginning of a very personal journey to the country of its origin. Last Epiphany, we dedicated this 100th anniversary year program at the cathedral to a deceased colleague and friend of mine who was a steadfast supporter of Lessons and Carols — Father Ronald Gollatz. He drove in from Chicago every year to attend the service. When word had been received by another mutual friend and colleague that we were doing this dedication, Tom Cademartrie made the trip out himself for the first time to attend and remember our dear friend.
A month later, Cademartrie called to encourage me to attend a summer musical festival called The Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester, England. This quintessentially English festival has been in existence for over 300 years. Some of our world’s greatest composers were alive at the time of its formation. Three Anglican cathedrals nestled in the English countryside – Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford – rotate the festival every year. It is here at this festival that many of these composers have had their music premiered. Spanning over eight days in late July, those who attend experience world class music making at its highest caliber.
The best part for me, however, is the opportunity for prayer. Sitting in Gloucester Cathedral, also named St. Peter and the Holy Indivisible Trinity, I had the opportunity to hear the finest organists and choirs singing daily at the service of choral evensong (similar to evening vespers in the Catholic tradition). This community originating in 679 now boasts an ancient cathedral space built in 1089.
How can one sit in this vast historical space, being bathed in the beauty of the finest choral tradition, and not be touched to the innermost depths of body, mind and soul? And to ponder the stained glass, woodwork, stone walls and arches, built lovingly and painstakingly without modern machinery, but through human hands and primitive practices? What do these buildings say? How do they speak to us? These arches, pillars and walls have been soaking in these heavenly compositions and prayers, day after day, for over 900 years!
With so many composers having their music sung here, it is encouraging to know that new compositions continue to be brought forth, building on the great legacy that has gone before. A top 10 life experience for me? Absolutely!
I am so passionate about this English musical tradition. The special season of Christmas is when some of the finest choral gems surface, for the mystery of Christ’s incarnation is truly a source of some of the greatest musical inspiration.
This passion then comes forth in our yearly service of Lessons and Carols celebrated at our archdiocesan cathedral. We aim to bring these world class composers and their compositions into our own sacred space, allowing our own walls, pillars and arches to soak up the sounds and traditions.
And do not we deserve to be gifted with this prayer form during the 12 days of Christmas? Deep and profound prayer can often times occur not only through our own singing and praying, but also through active listening! We all know the feeling when a piece of music touches us so deeply that it just takes our breath away. Yes, this is prayer!
But why promote this service at the Cathedral of St. Raphael? The cathedral holds a special place in any diocese. A cathedral is a “house” for the “cathedra,” the teaching chair of the bishop – shepherd of the diocese. The cathedral stands then as a model for formation and practice. The cathedral also stands as a center for civic, cultural and ecumenical activity. Lessons and Carols has the unique ability to resonate within each one of us, for the celebration of Christmas is something we all share in common.
This year, the cathedral choir and parish lectors will once again tell the story of Christ’s birth. Amidst five proclamations from sacred Scripture, the choir will flesh out the storyline with pieces from the English, Russian, Spanish and French choral traditions. A festive Christmas reception will follow.
The service date is Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, at 7 p.m. Instrumental preludes begin at 6:40 p.m. A freewill offering will be taken.
Mendralla is liturgy and music director at the Cathedral of St. Raphael in Dubuque.
Jim Mendralla sits at the organ in the Cathedral of St. Raphael in Dubuque. Earlier this year, he visited The Three Choirs Festival, an English choral festival with a history of over 300 years. (Contributed photo)