“The Marvel of This Night” recalled the event of the word made flesh from prophecy through fulfillment in scripture, poetry, prayer, and music. The awe-inspiring Duke Chapel, an ideal setting for this service, was dressed up with Christmas wreaths and a full house awaited. Sweet carillon carols accompanied the approach to and departure from the Chapel.

A large number of musicians and liturgists participated in the service, all of high quality and well prepared. The choir included Duke Chapel Choir conducted by Zebulon Highben, the Duke Vespers Ensemble conducted by Philip Cave, and Duke Evensong Singers conducted by Christopher Jacobson.

The Introit, “Savior of the Nations, Come,” one of Martin Luther’s marvelous chorales, was sung by the combined choirs, filling all the chapel spaces with wondrous sonic celebration. This was followed by a reading of the poem “It’s Midnight, Lord,” by Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara.

The first lesson included a reading from Isaiah, a beautiful anthem with text and music by Highben, “The Lord Shall Come and Not Be Slow,” and the carol, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” which was sung in a special arrangement by Chad Fothergill, commissioned especially for this event. It was introduced and enhanced by a beautiful string accompaniment.

The second lesson also began with a reading from Isaiah, chapter 11, which speaks of “a flower from Jesse’s stem.” This was followed by Herbert Howells’s gorgeous anthem “A Spotless Rose,” with David Faircloth of the Duke Evensong Singers delivering a clear and warm baritone solo.

Lesson number three took us to a reading from Micah where he tells of a ruler for Israel from Bethlehem. Samuel Scheidt’s Christmas anthem “Puer natus in Bethlehem” was powerfully enriched by Amalgam Brass. How could we not be reminded of the glory of Venice and the influence of marvelous Basilica San Marco? It was a magical moment in the service.

The congregational carol was “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

The fourth lesson told of the angel’s appearance to gentle Mary as related in the first chapter of Luke. The anthem was Judith Weir‘s awesome “Illuminare, Jerusalem.” This anthem speaks in an other-worldly language, both musically and poetically, with exquisite harmonies, delicious dissonances, unexpected turns, and surprise resolutions. This is the kind of music that says “Listen here. I have something to say to you!” And though the Old English text is hard to decipher, and the music is a challenge, you know you have been through something important to your soul.

The announcement that the virgin shall bear a son was read from the first chapter of Matthew and was expressed wonderfully in the traditional Spiritual “Mary had a Baby,” sung from the heart by Jordyn Blake. This was the fifth lesson.

The sixth lesson was the climax highlighted by the insertion of Handel’s Messiah anthem “Glory to God in the highest” into the middle of the reading, as though the scripture had actually come alive in our very presence. The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery, Dean of Duke University Chapel, delivered a reflection on the glory of this event. Whether it be in good times or hard times, the glory of the incarnation is unchallenged.

The congregational carol was “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

The lovely Swedish carol, “Den signade Dag” (This blessed day), arranged by Gunnar Idenstam, was given an outstanding rendition. All sang “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” Next, we heard a traditional Chinese carol “Pengyou, Teng” (Listen Friend, to this good news) and then “The First Noel.” The gifted Jordyn Blake returned to sing a rollicking version of “Why Did He Come?” John L. Bell, the arranger of this traditional Cameroon song, made full use of its rhythmic richness.

The seventh lesson, the light shines in the darkness, from the first chapter of John’s Gospel, was wonderfully illustrated in the anthem by Carl Schalk, which also provided the title for this concert/service, “Before the Marvel of This Night.”

The closing carol was Handel’s ubiquitous “Joy to the World.” Each verse added more of the musical resources until by the fourth verse every voice that was capable was declaring “He rules the world with truth and grace… and wonders of his love.” Choirs, congregation at full voice, brass and string instruments joining in, organ roaring majestically, all the empty spaces in Duke Chapel and perhaps (use your imagination) even the timbral and harp of David’s courts.

There are not words big enough to describe this event fully. It was taped, though, by CBS for national broadcast on December 24. It will also be available for viewing on Duke Chapel’s You Tube channel from Dec. 26 through Jan. 6, 2020.