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St Thomas’s Carol Service, 2014

posted 21 Mar 2015, 03:10 by St. Thomas' Church Aboyne   [ updated 21 Mar 2015, 03:10 ]

‘In the darkness God speaks and life comes into being.’

In an exquisitely decorated sanctuary, we gathered in December to share the annual Service of Lessons and Carols at St Thomas’s, and the invited readers, representing all the local churches in Aboyne and Tarland called our attention to the great Readings of the Bible, telling the human story and God’s gracious response in Love, that we believe was most fully expressed in human form in Jesus. We should not single out one of our nine excellent and expressive readers, but I have to recall Geoff Cormack, the final reader, speaking the mystery of the Incarnation as unfolded by John, in John Chapter 1, verse 1 – 16, in the King James Version. Geoff’s range of expression, pace and tone, sang out in spoken word, the wonder of the Word become flesh, in Christ. The Word, ‘the reason and imagination behind all things’: born as a baby in Bethlehem.

A particular thrill of preparing for the Christmas Carol Service this year was the welcome of additional new singers to St Thomas’s ‘Augmented Choir’, which gathers three times a year for special services, with the faithful, regular church choir of St Thomas’s, as its core members. This time, Sheila Maxwell’s home was crammed to capacity for our rehearsals and with his familiar quiet and precise conducting, Marcus Marsh worked to bring out our best in the singing of his chosen programme. The first piece was a testing one – Palestrina’s Alma Redemptoris Mater. The words of this anthem date back to the first half for the 11th century. They are a hymn of love to the Mother of our Saviour, in the Roman and Orthodox Church traditions. Palestrina, the composer of the tune, lived 500 years later, and gave to these ancient words a beautifully flowing tune, which taken slowly and with the subtle singing of the four parts in harmony, gave a heavenly sound.

For our Service of Lessons and Carols each year, Sheila Maxwell produces a premier performance of a new work, by her own hand and musicianship. This year the music Sheila composed had a new and special significance as it was set to words written by the Revd. Vittoria Hancock, Rector of St Thomas’s and St Kentigern’s. This was a dazzlingly moving joint-creation. As the choir worked at this new piece in the practices, we were drawn increasingly in awe to the Light that shines in the Darkness – Jesus Christ, Immanuel – God with us, calling us to Life. When sung in the church at the Carol Service, I powerfully felt, as Vittoria’s words were sung to Sheila’s music, our faith reaching out to the God at the heart of our worship, as our arms outstretched to embrace the Son, the chosen one. (If not too bold, for a retired Church of Scotland Minister to say, you should seriously be encouraging the publishing of Sheila Maxwell’s compositions for enjoyment by all choirs and churches, and I am going to ensure Sheila does not edit this comment out, in her other role, as Tattler Editor!! We should also have more beautiful and challenging words to enjoy from Vittoria.)

How quietly and reverently the Shepherds came to the manger, singing their Cradle Song to the Christ Child. Wiegenlied , translated from the German by A. Foxton Ferguson and sung to music by Charles Macpherson, illuminated in soft tones, a tender scene: ‘See, Mary has with mother’s love, a bed for Thee outspread, while Joseph stoops him from above and watches at Thy head.’ Yet what roles they had to play, and what a future to face – the Cross and the Death of their Jesus.

The traditional carol, What child is this?, perfectly carried us on to ask the great ‘Why’ questions of the Christian Faith in the Christmas Story. Why born of Mary? Why cradled in a manger? The carol gives its answer clearly: back to those words in the Gospel according to St John, now in Chapter 3, verse 16 –or as the Carol sang it – ‘The King of Kings, salvation brings; Let loving hearts enthrone Him.’

No Christmas Carol Service would be complete without the sparkling, rhythmic, modern carols Marcus Marsh always includes in his programmes, and Malcolm Archer’s. Angels tell the Christmas Story, lived up to that expectation. Its range of time signatures – 6:8, 4:8 and even 7:8 - tested the choir and accompanist to the limit and the burst of Gloria at the end, fanfared our joyful finale, with the only words that do true justice to the worship of Christmas – GLORIA IN EXCELSIS!

The essential participants are affirmed in the last but by no means least place, with warmest appreciation - THE CONGREGATION. The wholehearted participation of all in the gathered community of faith, in the singing of the well-loved carols, filled the time and space with warmth and light and wonder.

Yes, it truly was ‘Glory to God in the Highest’, from everyone.

Revd. Dr Andrew Wilson