The Flame of Southwestern’s Candlelight Service
I arrived at Louis Perkins chapel at 5:01 pm on December 1st, a few minutes late for my 4:55 pm call time to perform in the Candlelight Service. The warmth of the space engulfed me as I walked in, contrasting the chilly outside weather. My fellow singers in the Southwestern Chorale were already warming up their voices, and I smiled as I heard the various vocal scales echo in the eerily beautiful room. The choir, led by the fabulous Dr. Dalrymple, was about to perform for the University’s annual candlelight service. The first service of the night was offered at 6pm while the other was offered at 8. I did not realize how important the Candlelight Service was for the Southwestern and Georgetown community until I saw the large crowd that flooded the room. For the first performance, folks were showing up just after 5 to grab a seat–which was just as we were just beginning to rehearse! I also discovered that this was the 107th annual service…that’s a significant number of years to continue a tradition.
The new reverend, Reverend Ron Swain, welcomed the audience as the choir walked into the chapel singing “Once in Royal David’s City.” Everyone in the audience sang as well, lifting their voices up to the sky. Woven into the beauty of music, the service told seven lessons revolving around Jesus’ birth. Different Southwestern students volunteered as liturgists for each of the lessons, meaning they read certain excerpts from the Bible. In between each lesson, the choir either sang independently or led a hymn for the congregation to join. My absolute favorite song I sang in the choir was “O Come, Emmanuel.” While this is a popular Christmas song, I had never heard the version Dr. Dalrymple chose for us to sing. This version was sung in the key of E flat, starting softly and gradually growing to a grand fortissimo proclaiming “rejoice!” Dr. Polley and SU student Chase Crouch led us on the piano and cello, respectively. The mysterious notes of the piece echoed in the chapel, allowing feelings of hope and awe to captivate the audience.
After the seventh lesson, the Reverend lit the first candle of the service. A stunning glow gradually filled the chapel as the flame was passed around the choir, and eventually the entire audience. Each person’s face could be seen more clearly in the candlelight. I was extremely moved as I looked out into the sea of faces there to celebrate Christmas with us, and I could not help smiling wide. The choir exited the chapel in a simple procession, singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” to lead the congregation outside to surround Southwestern’s seal. Dr. Asbury played guitar in the fifty degree breeze as each person filed out of the chapel to join us in singing our last song of the service: “Silent Night.”
It was quite a surreal experience to be physically standing outside in the cold, dark night. Yet I still had the comforting feeling I felt indoors; I felt the warmth and light of the people surrounding me. During the service, I felt at peace for the first time in a while; watching individuals come together as one to sing such beautiful music as praise for the season was a remarkably magical experience. When the choir and congregation concluded singing “Silent Night,” I watched as every participant in the service blew their candle out. We gradually faded into, and became one with the darkness.
The way music connected people and the season was joyfully magnificent. This was especially the case for the choir’s other two stand alone songs which were “Bogoróditse Dyévo,” a Russian song about the mother of God, and “If Ye Love Me,” a shimmering acapella piece. The more commonly known hymns such as “We Three Kings” and “Joy to the World” were also uplifting songs to sing. People sincerely lifted up their voices, spirits, and hearts to the heavens—whether they believed in a higher power’s existence or not. During the Candlelight Service, the audience and the choir came together. We all became one for that short yet moving hour of an early December night.