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A Time to Pause

In a back pew of the nearly deserted Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel one afternoon last week, the Reverend H. Scott Matheney was watching and listening, an audience of one.

Matheney is the College’s chaplain, a job that ordinarily requires him to work from the front of the room. But this afternoon, he was rehearsing readers for the College’s annual Festival of Lessons and Carols. One by one, Elmhurst students and staff were taking turns stepping up to the chapel’s lectern, now flanked for the season by ribboned Christmas trees, to read through the Bible texts they had been assigned for the holiday service. After each reading, Matheney’s voice echoed from the rear of the church: “Thanks be to God!” Then he offered the same advice again and again: “Slow down!”

December on a college campus is not a propitious time for slowing down. Final exams loom. Long-procrastinated papers come due. Malls beckon. Stress levels soar.

The Festival of Lessons and Carols offers a counterpoint to the frenzy of the season. It is one night of candlelight and calm, music and ancient words. And for it to be done properly, Matheney says, there must be a certain cadence. A stateliness.

“Anticipation is what this season is all about,” he said. “We have to wait to get to the presence of the holy.”

Elmhurst’s celebration is based on the annual Christmas Eve service presented by King’s College at Cambridge University since 1918. It tells the Christmas story in readings from the Old Testament and New, advancing from prophecy to fulfillment. The tradition of Christmas services with sacred music and Scripture readings at Elmhurst dates back at least to 1933, when the College began offering what was then called a Candlelight Carol Service. By 1961, when it was first billed as a Festival of Lessons and Carols, most of the service’s now-familiar elements were in place: the darkened chapel, the procession of candle-bearing choristers, young voices singing timeless hymns.

Matheney has seen the tradition grow. When he came to Elmhurst 15 years ago, the service drew a few hundred congregants each year. Now it attracts so many worshipers that the College offers two annual services in the 1000-seat chapel.

Matheney sticks close to the service’s high-church roots. “The joke is that I’ll be bringing in incense next, “ he says. “But nobody else around here does it quite like we do. There’s a certain majesty and grandeur.”

Grand tradition may be part of its appeal, but that doesn’t mean the service has been allowed to grow creaky with age. One of the highlights of this year’s celebration was the Elmhurst debut of an African “Noel,” sung in the Kituba dialect, that featured the more than 100 members of the College’s choirs, directed by Susan Moninger and Donna Peterson Tallman, clapping and stomping in time.

“I think that one’s a keeper,” Matheney said.

As the chapel filled for the first service, Matheney was out among the congregation, now in his clerical robes. Candles lined the center aisle. Some of the people he greeted in the pews had been returning for years, drawn by the chance to sing together again in the chapel’s mild light. Old friends traded hugs. There were students there, too, first-timers, taking a break from the end-of-semester rush to be a part of the tradition. At this time of year the academic calendar converges with the liturgical one. So that even as students are getting ready for their exams, churches are getting ready for the coming of the Savior. Semester’s end coincides with the beginning of Advent. And for decades now, the Lessons and Carols service at Elmhurst has marked both.

“This is a time to pause,” Matheney told the congregation in his opening prayer.

Everything was ready. There was a moment of stillness. Then, as they have for so many years, the people started singing.

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