Christmas Fest’s Dissent from Lutheran Ideals of Worship Music

In studying Reformation theology and traditions, it is important to evaluate the ways in which St. Olaf’s Lutheranism adheres to and differs from Luther’s thinking.  Christmas Festival, in particular, bears witness to the complicated interconnectedness of Church and college at St. Olaf.  Although Christmas Fest identifies neither as a worship service nor a concert, but an ambiguous mélange of the two, it’s use of liturgical music as art music necessarily suggests a sacred dimension.  A comparison with Luther’s worship service reveals that Christmas Fest is in tension with Luther’s communitarian and antihierarchical ideals.  While Christmas Fest encourages a Lutheran delight in music, it asserts a hierarchy between instrumentalists and singers and a choir versus audience professionalism Luther would have opposed.

St. Olaf’s insistence on professionalism in Christmas Fest conflicts with Luther’s most important values of accessibility and community in worship.  In his rewritten liturgy, Luther and other Reformers made worship music more accessible by setting texts in the vernacular to folk tunes.  Lutheran worship also replaced professional choirs with congregational singing to encourage active participation among congregants and community in Christian faith.  While Christmas Fest includes congregational singing, the choirs’ performances greatly overshadow the few instances where the audience joins.  Likewise, the performers are clearly distinguished from the audience in their attire and position in the “auditorium”, analogous to a professional choir.  Luther would also criticize the choirs’ overly-professional behavior in performance.  For instance, pressure to perform perfectly and flawless coordination in processing, standing up, and sitting down foster a sense of stiffness and detachment between audience and performers.  Christmas Fest combines aspects of a worship service and a performance, and so it differs in practice from a service intended purely for worship.  Nevertheless, Christmas Fest deviates from the Lutheran tradition of church music.

In addition to his condemnation of music out of touch with ordinary life, Luther sought to remove hierarchy in his reformed liturgy.  His use of chorales and congregational singing suggest Luther valued equality among those participating in music.  The hierarchy of singers and instrumentalists in Christmas Fest contradicts Luther’s desires for equality and community in worship.  Christmas Fest privileges singers with jewel-toned robes, lighting, and elevated position on the stage, and performance of the vast majority of music on the program.  By contrast, the orchestra musicians disguise themselves in black, sit below the choirs, and function primarily as accompaniment.  In asserting a preference for choral music above instrumental music, Christmas Fest divides the priesthood of all believers Luther hoped to create with equality in music.

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