Friday, December 29, 2006

A "Silent Night" solution?

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In most of the churches I've attended (and both the churches I've served as a priest) there has been a custom of dimming the lights after everyone has received Holy Communion for the singing of "Silent Night" by candlelight. This was done either with or without the congregation having individual candles. At St Alban's, we don't pass out individual candles.

I suppose there are some people who really love this, otherwise, we wouldn't see such a widespread custom. I find it to be a bit sappy and unnecessary, but I realize that it might be important to others. I think it occurs at an awkward time in the liturgy. Especially with the dimming and then raising of the house lights just for one hymn, the flow of the liturgy seems interrupted by an outside element which is out of proportion to the ordinary of the Mass. In addition, the process of dimming the lights in the building can become a distraction itself if not done smoothly.

I have been thinking about a possible solution--to retain the custom for the people who love it while not interrupting the flow of the liturgy. My thought is to take an approach inspired by the Easter Vigil transition from light to dark. Many churches have a period of music and/or carol singing before the midnight Mass to give people who came early to find a seat something to occupy their attention. My thought was, Why not have the church dimly lit with people holding lighted candles during this period before the Mass?

Liturgically, this would represent the time during the darkness before Christ is born. It could end with the placing of the bambino in the manger (perhaps by a child) and the station at the creche. "Silent Night" could be sung by candlelight just before, during, or just after the station at the creche. The next element would be "Let us go forth in the name of Christ", beginning a solemn procession to the singing of "O come, all ye faithful" to begin the midnight Mass of Christmas.

I am interested in hearing feedback from priests/pastors and from laity. How does this strike you? Have you experienced it this way before? What have you found that works or doesn't work in the past?

For background information, here is the excerpt from Ritual Notes (11th Ed., p 278) on the visit to the Christmas creche:
It is a laudable and widespread custom at Christmastide to erect in churches a representation of the birthplace of our blessed Redeemer; or at least to exhibit a figure of the divine Infant. This figure is generally known as the Bambino; it may be placed in a prominent position on the altar or on a support nearby (but not in the throne of exhibition, or in place of the cross).

At the incensations, it is incensed by the priest standing, exactly in the same manner as, and after, the altar cross. The Bambino is usually laid in the Christmas crib immediately before or after the midnight Mass; or if there is no midnight Mass, then as near to midnight as many be convenient. If it is desired to make a ceremony of this by carrying the figure in procession (with or without lights and incense) there is no law forbidding it, provided that it is not done during the course of Mass.

It is a common custom after solemn services in the Christmas season for the priest in cope, attended by servers, to visit the crib--so many of the congregation can conveniently do so joining in--where popular devotions in honour of the Holy Child are said. If the Bambino is incensed it should be done by the priest standing, although the congregation may be kneeling.


Anonymous said...

At Mount Calvary, the custom is to sing "Silent Night" after the station at the creche during the opening procession. The station itself is actually the blessing of the creche. I had not experienced before, but I thought it worked very well. And there was no dimming of the lights!

Fr. Jason Catania
Mount Calvary Church, Baltimore

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

Fr Catania, so good to hear from you about the custom at the venerable parish of Mount Calvary.

One thing I forgot to mention was my reason for beginning in darkness (or mood lighting, like at a nice restaurant) was that it seems to me that raising the lights once will mean far fewer possible glitches than lowering and raising the lights.

Perhaps "Silent Night should be sung first, when the Bambino is placed in the crib, then the crib is blessed, then "Angels we have heard on high," then raise the lights (and blow out hand candles) for a solemn procession in the angelic light of a new dawning to "O come all ye faithful" to begin the Mass of Christmas.

Adam said...

I like Father Catania's solution. I've never been to Grace & St. Peter's for Christmas Eve, because I'm always out of town, so I don't know what is done down the street. In the two churches I used to belong to, the lights were dimmed, and it happened after communion. It was horribe and sappy and I refused to participate :) At the ECUSA parish in PA, after the lights went back up, we sang "Break forth, O beautious, heavenly light". Hmm. My 2 cents.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Actually, I learned some important things from our time at GASP in Baltimore.

Our daughter Mia is a graduate of GASP Day School and remains forever a heartfelt and enthusiastic fan of "Fr. Bullwinkle" (he knows who he is).

In the very low church of St. Paul's in Chatham, NJ, at the 5 PM "Children's Service" the blessing of the Creche immediately follows the ablutions after the celebration and distribution of The Eucharist.

One of the children lays the symbol of the Infant Jesus in the creche, the house lights are lowered, the tapers are lit, and we sing Silent Night as a prayer.

The liturgical leaders then reassembles at the altar for the Post communion prayer and the Christmas Blessing is given.

We process out of the church to the final hymn and into the mission of the church in the world as the dismissal is given.

I love this Christmas counterpoint to the candles that are lit at the Great Vigil of Easter, the first effect of the "new fire" lit at the begininning of that liturgy.

Fr Timothy Matkin said...


At St Paul's, do the lights stay down or are they raised again after Silent Night, or after the final blessing, or at some other point?

Anonymous said...

At St. Timothy's in Fort Worth, the Bambino is placed in the creche (located in the narthex by the entrance) after the Solemn Mass. After the Last Gospel, we process down the aisle to "Hark the Herald Angels Sing";

I place the Infant Christ in the crib, bless, sprinkle and incense the creche, and then kneel at the prie dieu as the congregation sings "Silent Night" (the organ playing softly). The people then then say a prayer and light a candle at the votive stand in front of the creche on their way out.

This is a reverent and attractive way to close the mass and the people leave the quiet church and go into the quiet (and late--usually about 1 am).

The church is dim throughout the mass as we have around thirty candles on the altar (the big six and two huge candelabras) and over 100 votive candles in the big side window. Hope this helps.

The Very Rev'd Christopher Stainbrook

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

At St. Paul's, the babe is placed in the creche after it is blessed, we lower the lights and sing Silent Night, then the lights go up (Jesus is the Light of the World), I give the final blessing and off we go.

Hope that is helpful to you.