Ramona held its annual Christmas-tree lighting on the evening of December 13. At nine the next morning, the bell in the brown wood steeple above the First Congregational Church clanged out a summons to the congregation’s annual Christmas cantata.
“A cantata is a combination of songs on a theme,” said music director Sue Trukken. “It tells a story; all the songs have to relate. I chose this one — ‘Glorious Joy’ — for this year because it’s not as involved as some of the ones we’ve done in the past, and I thought we were going to have a smaller choir. Last year, our choir was really small because of the fires. But then, this year, we had all these people come in — people from the Catholic Church, people from the community. It makes this kind of simple cantata sound really full. It’s a joy to sing with all these people.”
Inside, all was woodwork and uniformly brown — from the slats on the ceiling to the beams that supported them to the rough Gothic window casings to the walls and wainscoting. Only the bright Good Shepherd stained glass in the nave provided permanent color — but the temporary sort was in full flower: a raft of scarlet poinsettias set above and below the purple-draped altar, and more surrounding the gold-and-white Christmas tree beside the pulpit. A winged cherub looked down from the rafters, garlands weighted with ornaments hung down below his feet.
The choir filled four risers in the sanctuary — red ties, white shirts, black pants; more women than men; more old than young; but varied. After the opening prayer, they stood and led the congregation in the rousing (and somewhat martial) anthem “Joy to the World”: Joy to the world, the Lord is come...Joy to the world, the Savior reigns...He rules the world with truth and grace...”
Following the call to worship, Pastor Bentz smilingly led a versified Lighting of the Advent Candle of Joy — the pink one on the Advent Wreath. “Like a shepherd still on the hill in Judea/ we thrill to an angel cantata on a hill in Ramona/ Delight in the delivery of God’s own boy/ And light the glad candle of joy.” Two women took up the verse and did the actual lighting: “The prophet foretold it, but the angel was the first to announce the birth/ As the earth lit up, the glory shone ’round and the mirth/ Burst for as the angel said, ‘I bring you glad tidings of great joy that will come to all people: born to you, this day in this town, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’”
A solo at the offertory, then prayer in unison for the dedication, and the cantata was ready to begin. Trukken hit the play button on her remote, and the orchestra came in over the speakers, replete with flourishes from synth and electric guitar.
This swirling of tradition and (relative) novelty carried through the whole of the performance. In the cantata’s penultimate chapter, built around the scripture telling how the shepherds “spread the word concerning what had been told them,” the modern, swinging “Good News” got mashed up with a new verse for “Joy to the World”: “Go tell the world the glorious word/ That Christ the Lord is here...”
But the singing itself echoed with tradition: the gentle harmonies, the trade-offs between male and female voices, the sopranos reaching up high full-bore on the big finishes (“...the new — born — KING!”). So did the cantata themes, all of them built around the nativity story, though with an unusual emphasis or two. First the angels in the sky, then the baby in His crib, then a series of ruminations on the name Jesus was given. “Sing His name and demons tremble/ Sing His name and angels assemble.”
Finally, worship and pleading at the feet of the infant King. “Come, O come Emmanuel,” implored the narrator. “To our disenchanted world, be our wonderful Counselor. To our weak and powerless lives, be our mighty God. To our fractured families, be our everlasting Father. To our strained and shattered relationships, be our Prince of Peace. O come Emmanuel, from Your glory into our world, from Your eternity into our lives, from Your throne into our hearts.”
“Jesus in dust and hay I kneel/ Stable in deepest peace/ My only hope Your righteousness, Mercy my only plea.”
What happens when we die?
“There is a life for us in Christ,” said Bentz, “in heaven — with God and angels. We especially celebrate that at Christmas.”
— Matthew Lickona
Denomination: United Church of Christ
Founded locally: 1898
Senior pastor: Tom Bentz
Congregation size: 500
Staff size: 7
Sunday school enrollment: 50
Weekly giving: n/a
Annual budget: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: semiformal to formal
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 9 a.m., 10:15 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour