Midnight service: after Carlo's prelude on "O Sanctissima" (breathtaking at the end with 8th note runs in the pedals - his feet must have been veritably dancing!), with the ringing of the bell, the congregation stood and we sang together "On Christmas Night All Christians Sing" as the cross and clergy came down the aisle. Pastor Ball was was vested in stole, chasuble and maniple - yes, full euchaistic vestments. I was up in the choir loft and just before the bell, the sweet smell of the incense that burned beside the altar wafted aloft. I have always loved this liturgy for its sweet stillness. The choir intoned the Introit: "When all was still and it was midnight Your almighty Word, O Lord, descended from the royal throne." After the Kyrie, what joy to welcome back the Gloria in Excelsis again. After the collect ("O God, You made this most holy night to shine..."), Pastor Gleason read the OT reading from Isaiah 9, the choir sang the Gradual and then the double-quartet offered "Farewell of the Shepherds." After the Epistle and the Alleluia, the Gospel was processed to the center of the nave and Pastor Ball intoned the announcement of the Gospel and its conclusion (but not the Gospel itself). Then we welcomed back the Nicene Creed, during which Pr. Ball and Pr. Gleason genuflected. The hymn of the day was "Lo, How A Rose" - again that reference to "deepest midnight hour."
Pr. Ball's homily was beyond words comforting. It didn't matter what you brought you here tonight, he reminded us, the Lord Himself gathered you for this one reason, to give you forgiveness, to be your light and comfort. During the offering, Cindi and Carlo led a jaunty "Shepherd's Pipe Carol." Pastor Ball used the intercessions that Synod publishes for LetUsPray. I love the response: Lord, have mercy. It's like we cannot say it too much, too often. It summarizes everything we need ever ask.
Pr. Ball chanted the magnificent Christmas Preface and then we broke into a jubilant Sanctus (I think I'm finally learning the tenor for that - I'd always sung bass). Pastor sang the Our Father and we joined in the doxology and then came the solemn consecration. After each element was consecrated he elevated (to the sound of the three chimes) and then genuflected. After the Peace and Agnus, Cindy and Rachel Gleason sang a duet on O Holy Night while the rest of the choir approached the holy altar to receive the Lord's body and blood. During distribution we sang "Of the Father's Love Begotten" and afterward lit candles, and concluded with Nunc Dimittis, post-communion prayer, Silent Night (first stanza in German), and then salutation, benedicamus, benediction and finally a loud and joyous "Joy to the World."
Singing in the choir was a new kind of delight for me. And it didn't stop there, for that was only the first Mass of Christ-Mass. Today at 9 the so-called Third Mass followed (we didn't have a second - but I've have gone if we did!). The bell sounded and we stood to hear the reading of the old Christmas Kalends from the Roman Martyrology, with its natural segue into Adeste Fidelis. As cross, torches and lectionary and clergy processed down the aisle the church was alive to the repeated call: "O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!"
After the confession and absolution, the Introit was intoned by Choir: "To us a Child is born; to us a Son is given!" Then Kyrie and Gloria, salutation and collect. The first reading was Exodus 40, the finishing of the tabernacle. The bells played a "He is Born the Child Divine." The short epistle from Titus to remind us of Baptism's rebirth. Alleluia and Gospel: John 1:1-14. After confessing the Nicene Creed with usual ceremonies, Luther's hymn "All Praise to You" was belted out. Yet another powerful, powerful homily: inviting us to ponder the mystery of the Eternal Word and that from eternity the Eternal Word has seen and known our wretched state, and in love chosen to bear it and free us from it that we might become children of God with Him.
The choir sang Bach's sublime setting of Gerhardt's "Beside Your Cradle" as the offerings were gathered, Cindi singing stanza 3 as a solo. Then the Prayer of the Church, again from LetUsPay.
During the Distribution, the choir sang Tollite hostia and then the congregation responded with a mighty "Now Sing We Now Rejoice," and then the lovely Slovak carol "Let Our Gladness Have No End." We gave thanks and then marched out with a triumphant "Rejoice, Rejoice this happy morn." After silent prayer, Carlo offered a stunning postlude on "He is Born."
Putting it all together: it was overflowing joy, reverent and peaceful, beautiful and stilling. It's the first time since 1986 when I was not myself the celebrant on these feasts, and yet it was so utterly clear that in this liturgy first and foremost God comes to serve us and after that, we in the Spirit and through the Son, offer to the Father the sacrifice of praise, thanks, and adoration. That's not an offering by the pastor alone, but by the pastor, the people, the musicians, the reader, the acolytes and crucifer, the whole assembly. It was a merry Christ-Mass indeed, and I am so eager for the NEXT time we gather to receive His gifts and join in offering an acceptable sacrifice of praise through Jesus Christ, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name.
Hodie Christus natus est!