An elegant hush had settled down from the coffered ceiling high above.
Nestling in between garlands draped around the sanctuary and decorative chandeliers with real, lit candles, lushly satisfying orchestral music permeated the room like the alluring aroma of spiced tea. Ancient, classic music almost everyone can enjoy. During the one season of the year when tradition is most welcomed.
Soaring from behind us in the choir loft, silver organ pipes glistened with flickering dances of jeweled candlelight. Each of us, with our candles glowing amidst the poignant blackness, moved in a solemn, choreographed procession to form a ribbon of light around the front of the sanctuary. We were singing the beloved "Silent Night," near the conclusion of our church's annual Christmas service of lessons and carols.
As the evening approached its seminal hymn, to be sung in part by a noted operatic tenor, utterly exquisite sounds of the season were joining in harmonic testament to God's gift of the Christ Child.
But the door wouldn't open.
Rob Holden, our guest tenor, had been making his way down behind me, along the wall below the organ's pipes. In the elegant darkness, Holden felt his way for a hidden door built into woodwork paneling surrounding the chancel. He needed to dash from the back of the choir loft, through a back passageway, and to the front of the platform, all in about a minute, so he could sing part of a duet as the closing piece of the concert.
By running his hands along the woodwork, he thought he could find the door, but couldn't. In the darkness, one set of hand-carved paneling felt just like another. But he didn't have time to retrace his steps; the ribbon of fragile, dancing candlelight was nearing completion, and our choir had begun the third verse of Silent Night.
I could hear the rustling of Holden's choir robe, and the swishing of his hands as he began to rapidly smear the paneling with his free hand, holding his candle and music in the other while looking for the secret door. A tall, solid man, a veteran of live performances, Holden had probably never been befuddled by an invisible door before. It's not exactly something you plan for. So, as our row of singers descended down a step, I discreetly stepped out of formation to join Holden near the door, and being more familiar with the loft than he was, quickly found it for him.
But, as I've said, it wouldn't budge. And almost audibly, a big clock began ticking down our final minute, an increasing sense of urgency resonating between Holden and me.
Understandably, our guest tenor started getting a little anxious. Neither one of us needed to have the situation spelled out for us. By this point, a line of choir members would have blocked his only other route of escape, and his singing partner would have begun his approach to the platform for their duet. Do you holler out from the darkness, "Hey! This door won't open!" so the director will put the concert on "pause?" Can you do that in a Presbyterian church that doesn't use PowerPoint presentations in its services?
Under pressure, I found myself sputtering silently about the idiot who locked the chancel door on a concert night. Why does this door even have a lock on it? It's purely ornamental! The absurdity of the situation, while hardly a national crisis, seemed nonetheless personal and urgent.
Just over my shoulder stood one of our best sopranos, who could see our crisis. Tall, elegant, and supremely southern, Charlotte possesses a solid voice and years of experience as a choral conductor herself. Not to mention an authentic Arkansas drawl and a flair for the obvious. Turning her head towards us, she whispered hoarsely, drawing out the first vowel, "Is it locked?"
Having gone from mere agitation to full-blown panic, Rob Holden was kind of bouncing around now, and we both hissed "YES!!"
So Charlotte offered some priceless advice.
"Push it hard!" she said, as if neither of us had thought of that. Yet, obediently, I pushed again, as if hers was the talisman that would magically unseal the secret passage, like a mystical children's story.
Yet the door yielded not.
"PUSH IT HARDER!" Charlotte sternly commanded, with an exasperation in her voice similar to "why do women always have to think of these things?"
Up until this point, I had resisted a full-blown body slam against the door, since the rest of the choir was still softly singing "Silent Night." But which would be worse: a soloist singing only half a duet from the front of the platform, a duet being sung by two men in different parts of the church, or the brief blast of splintering wood so that the rest of the concert could proceed as scheduled? So I pushed harder, as Charlotte had ordered, and with a heaving shudder, the door suddenly swung open.
With gravity working against me, I staggered headlong into the secret hallway. Struggling to retain my balance, I had visions of votive and candle crashing onto 100% flammable carpet, my music folder flying from my hand into the nearby wall, and potentially ruining the climax of the service. Not to mention setting off the automatic fire sprinkler system.
Instead, none of that happened. I managed to quickly regain my composure, Holden did escape in time, not a drop of wax hit the floor, and I closed the door.
Well, I tried a couple of times, and it wouldn't close. Finally, figuring I had already broken the mood, I gave a good tug, and the door thudded shut with a heavy clap.
When I joined my fellow choir members in the candle line, one of them whispered something unsupportive about all the racket I was making. In the darkness, he hadn't seen anything, but judging by where the noise was coming from, he could figure out what was happening. The holder of an engineering degree, when the concert had concluded and I had filled him in on what had transpired, he kindly offered a detailed explanation of how the wood had expanded and how the custom door latch had gotten jammed.
And as it turned out, our director hadn't heard or suspected a thing.
Charlotte, meanwhile, struggled to suppress her urge to laugh out loud for the duration of the concert.
"Men!" she probably was thinking, but too genteel to admit.
So much for a silent night.