05 January 2013

Eve of the Epiphany: Christ, Mighty Savior

Tonight is Twelfth Night, which marks the end of the Christmas holiday and the eve of Epiphany.* Although contemporary Western culture puts the focus exclusively on (and prior to) December 25, historically the twelve days of Christmas were widely observed and culminated in the celebration of Twelfth Night and Epiphany.

Since January 6 is a Sunday this year, more churches will observe the festival than when it falls on a weekday. Yet it seems that Twelfth Night/Epiphany observances are also making a broader comeback. For example: An article in the Columbus Dispatch this week highlighted a slate of concerts and special worship services in central Ohionot as many events as on any given weekend in December, of course, but notable nevertheless.

A central concept/image for Epiphany is lightboth the light of the star which led the magi to Jesus and the light of Christ himself, made manifest through three Biblical epiphanies historically celebrated together on January 6. (For more on that, see this previous post.) Throughout the church's year, evening services such as Vespers and Compline also focus on Christ's light. Evening worship was central to the early church's life, as communities of the faithful prayed for peace and safety through the nighttime, which surely seemed more threatening in a world without electricity, where both light and heat would dissipate without careful tending.

There is a thematic overlap, then, between texts and music which celebrate the Epiphany and those which hallow the evening. One of my favorites, appropriate for both occasions, is Christ, Mighty Savior. The original text can be traced to Mozarabic Christians in the tenth century; the modern English version comes from Alan McDougall (1895-1964) and Anne LeCroy. Although the text has been well-paired with the tune CHRISTE SANCTORUM, my preference is for Richard W. Dirksen's chant-like INNISFREE FARM. MorningStar Music recently published my concertato setting of this pairing, arranged for choir and assembly with organ, oboe, and bells. You can listen to a recording here.

Happy Twelfth Night, and Blessed Epiphany!

*This is true according to one way of reckoning liturgical time. Another way holds that the Christmas season lasts for forty days and culminates in the presentation of Jesus at the temple, celebrated on February 2 (Candlemas). Read more about Candlemas here.

Wikipedia claims that there is confusion over whether the evening of January 5 or January 6 is accurately labeled Twelfth Night, citing a Daily Telegraph article from 2009. Such confusion may exist, but only one date is correct. Christian feast days begin at sundown the evening before their calendar date, which is why festivals like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost commence with an evening or vigil service. Therefore Twelfth Night is and has always been January 5.

27 April 2012

The Numberless Gifts of God's Mercies

On Sunday, April 29, the Minnesota Compline Choir will present a concert at Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis in celebration of the ensemble's twentieth anniversary. The concert will include the premiere of a hymn I arranged for them, The Numberless Gifts of God's Mercies, on a text by Lina Sandell translated by Gracia Grindal.

The MCC is an interesting ensemble in several ways. Unlike most community or professional choirs, it rarely presents concerts. Its primary purpose has always been the singing of Compline, the last service in the cycle of the Daily Office or Liturgy of the Hours. Since at least the sixth century, monastic communities have held brief prayer services or offices every three hours throughout the day and night. Compline was the last office of the day, usually held around 9:00 p.m. (Matins, historically, was sung around or just after midnight to greet the new day.) The general form of each office involved the singing and praying of psalms, a canticle such as the Magnificat or Nunc Dimittis, and brief scripture readings. Although the full cycle of eight offices is no longer everywhere observed, many faith communities still practice some combination of morning prayer (Matins or Lauds), evening prayer (Vespers), and night prayer (Compline).

The MCC is not connected to a single community. The singers come from various congregations and different parts of the Twin Cities to rehearse and sing each week's service. Further, for much of its history the Choir was widely heard but rarely seen: For its first 12 years, the Compline services were broadcast every Sunday from Central Lutheran Church over WCAL (89.3 FM), the radio station of St. Olaf College. Shortly after St. Olaf sold the station to Minnesota Public Radio in 2004, the MCC left Central and took its music on the road, presenting Compline at various churches throughout the Twin Cities. During this Easter season, the MCC is in residence at the Basilica of Saint Mary.

My first church position in Minnesota involved working both on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings, which made for a very long day. I would usually leave the church around 9:00 p.m., just as the Compline broadcast was beginning. It was (as it is intended to be) the perfect way to end the day, mentally and spiritually preparing for a night's rest. It was a pleasure to arrange this hymn for the MCC, especially now that a dear friend of mine is serving as its conductor. I wish I could be there to hear it...but I'll have to catch the broadcast instead, just like old times.

Want to listen, too? The Minnesota Compline Choir features streaming and downloadable files of its most recent service as well as an archive of previous services here.