As I entered the chapel, I noticed that I was underdressed in my cargo shorts and t-shirt, as those around me donned suits and jackets or dresses and heels. I had expected more of my fellow students on the floor, but most of the audience was composed of an older demographic of community members. Somehow, I managed to end up up without a program when I entered the chapel, which contributed to quickly feeling anxious and out-of-place. As I stood up to try and find a program, the lights dimmed and I hastily sat down, realizing that the performance was about to begin.
My discomfort subsided when the choir began to sing. Sometimes, something is just so plainly and evidently good that words struggle to describe because you feel that you cannot to do it justice. That was my experience at the Feast of Lights.
Performers seamlessly transitioned between singing and playing instruments, to slowly walking in procession, to saying prayers with the audience. Having no program, I think my experience was strengthened as a spectator because I was that much more surprised when my fellow attendees took up Chaplain John Walsh’s prayer in perfect unison as he took to the pulpit. I was surprised every time with the smooth and gentle flow between singing to group prayer, with the attendees joyfully and unabashedly participating along with the performers.
Each musical performance truly blew me away. I could feel that I was in a sacred place for a sacred ceremony, regardless of my own religious and spiritual background. The swelling glorias and organ tunes were both one of the loudest and most harmonious things I have ever heard. I could feel the rumbling wait of the organ in my bones, and I gaped in awe at the gigantic buildups and resolutions courtesy of the orchestral and choral performers.
The performance had numerous highlights that I feel the need to mention. When Chapel Events Coordinator Peter Tupou and two choral students walked down the aisles dressed as the three kings I already was awed by their extremely lengthy robes and sumptuous crowns. When they began to sing clearly and loudly without the assistance of a microphone, I was astonished at their vocal power and definition.
The actual lighting of the several candles was equally, if not even more magical. As Walsh told the story of Christ from his pulpit, the lights turned off, and only the small flame of a single candle illuminated him. Choral students walked up in twos, each using the flame of the candle to light candelabras in the wings and aisles of the chapel. Once the aisles were filled, the audience rose and the performance transitioned into the quad, where a manger was illuminated in front of a host of candles that lined the quad. The choral students continued lighting candles until the entire quad was too, glowing with their light.
The audience participation as a whole was memorable for its jubilant tenacity. There was a lack of inhibition or fear within the audience. No attendees were hesitant to speak along with Walsh’s prayer. No one seemed afraid to sing along with “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” as some students may be. As Walsh entreated the audience to sing along to what he called “Songs of Hope and Peace,” I understood why the Feast of Lights is important to people. It’s a coming together to share something beautiful and sacred with different members of the community, to revel in the opportunity to blithely sing songs of hope and peace.
To end, I would like to share a statement from Tupou, from his email to me explaining why the Feast of Lights was important to him.
“There’s something I can’t fully describe about why this event is so meaningful to my life,” Tupou began. “It’s not just the story of a tiny little baby, or the Chapel aglow with candles, the ‘Deep Peace’ at the end of the service, or the beautiful music that weaves it all together. It’s not just the faces of family and friends in the audience or the close camaraderie of the choir and orchestra. Perhaps it’s the act of sharing our love and hope through the expression of our talents and hard work. Or perhaps it’s the many people who’ve shared this experience with me on that Chapel stage and many more who have come before me. Or perhaps its wonder lies in the healing power of a community coming together, year after year, to sing these songs of hope and peace. I’m always reminded of the words from the choristers prayer – ‘Grant that what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts we may show forth in our lives.’ It’s the last part that hits me the hardest and is the most meaningful… To show forth in our lives. That’s what it’s all about.”
photo courtesy of Redlands Bulldog photographer Ali Anders