It’s not just about calendars

The best queue I ever stood in was for Lenin’s Tomb. It snaked around one and a half sides of the Kremlin but it kept moving. The Russians did not approve of dawdling. 40 minutes in and out to see the old wax work and then get on with our lives.

Yesterday’s queue was 45 minutes stationary in a medieval cloister, but that was expected. We were told to be an hour early for the doors opening to Salisbury cathedral’s candlelit Advent service. At T minus 45 minutes, when we got there, the queue already reached round two sides of the cloisters. Before too long we were being asked to squeeze forward as the cloisters were full and people were standing out in the rain. And they were still coming in from the rain when we finally got to go in. (Showing, I thought, a slight lack of initiative: the cloisters are quite wide enough for the queue to coil at least once.)

The people in front of us were well organised, with flasks of mulled wine and Tupperware boxes of mince pies and a large packet of Tyrells crisps. One of them came up with a throwaway line, “When I was on Ark Royal we organised our own Welsh male voice choir …” Yes, we were in line with the right sort of people.

And how worth the wait it was, even with the extra 50 mintues after we actually took our seats before the service began. I had brought a book – Resurrection Men by Ian Rankin – but thought it would be better just to sit and absorb the atmosphere.

The cathedral is plunged into darkness with just one candle lit at the west end. Light spreads throughout the cathedral – very slowly, candle by candle. (In fact we were all probably standing for about five minutes after the order of service decreed emphatically “The congregation SITS” because of course at that point in the service no one could read the order of service …) The choir comes in and splits up, going down either side of the cathedral into the darkness while the trebles throw the chorus back and forth from side to side, as if someone is playing with the balance settings.

The light stops at the transept – the east end and the altar stay in darkness. But the choir heads off into the dark, all the way to the Trinity Chapel right at the far end, their singing now slightly muffled but sending back sound signals to plumb the depths of the building. Little stars of light move around as candles are lit with tapers. The east window starts to glow. Light has reached even that far. Utterly magical.

By the end of the service there are upwards of 1000 candles all adding their little flame to the overall illumination. I wondered if the service was tailored to the burning time of a 12 inch candle, or if the candles were ordered in to suit the length of the service. Either way they got it exactly right. And then we sung the outward processional hymn, “Lo, he comes with clouds descending”, and I have never meant the words of the last verse more wholeheartedly than last night. I see why the first thing any self-respecting cult or alternative religion tries to do is knock Jesus of his throne, because it’s all about him. It was helped by a two minute bridge played on the organ before the final verse, to give the procession time to proceed, during which it got louder and louder and more and more triumphant. But even so:

Yea, amen, let all adore thee,
High on thy eternal throne. (Yea! Sing it!)
Saviour, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for thine own. (Darn tootin’! Take it! Take it!)
Alleluia, alleluia,
Thou shalt reign and thou alone. (Abso-fragging-lutely! Thou alone!)

And not a word about doom. Marvellous.

As I get older I find I require more and more aesthetic satisfaction. The world is so much more than the sun of our five senses but the fact is we have five senses and they require fulfilment. Why cheat them out of it?

My student self would barely recognise me sometimes, but that’s his loss and my gain.