In a time of great grief and shaken faith, a soaring anthem provided a note of hope Sunday evening.
This Christmas musical tradition took on greater, yet somber, significance in Fairfield as 16 members of the Trinity Episcopal Church choir from Newtown joined counterparts at First Church Congregational for a "Messiah" Sing, an informal performance of George Frederic Handel's famed oratorio perhaps best known for its "Hallelujah" refrain.
The joint venture was planned as part of First Church's concert series long before Friday's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, where the lives of 20 children and seven adults, including the shooter, came to a tragic and violent end. A 28th body -- the killer's mother -- was later found at their home.
No one would have blamed the Newtown singers for backing out of Sunday's event, which took place as President Obama was visiting their hometown to comfort families of the shooting victims and to speak at an interfaith vigil.
The tragedy touched the choir directly. Benjamin Wheeler, the 6-year-old son of one of their singers was among those killed during the school rampage. After the musical program a person with ties to the Trinity choir said Ben often sat with them in the choir loft.
Fiona Smith Sutherland, the music minister at Trinity and conductor for the Messiah Sing, said about half of the members of her choir could not make the trip to Fairfield "for obvious reasons," but "many of them wanted to come here to lift our voices and let this be therapeutic for us as well as bringing music to you." Sutherland had to leave immediately following the Sing because she was involved with the vigil at Newtown High School, where Obama spoke.
"It was difficult (to sing), but it was absolutely essential," Sutherland said, adding that it served as a reminder that joy does still exist.
"Life will go on and this will bring a few moments of joy. Maybe not happiness right now, but joy," said Andrea Boudra Kotylo, music director and organist at First Church.
"A lot of us chose to come to try to put some structure and order around what's happened," said one man, who asked that his name not be disclosed.
George Ferris, 17, of Newtown, who sings bass in the Trinity choir, said, "It's therapeutic to sing, to do what you normally do, whether it's singing, writing, running, swimming or even cartwheeling."
"After all that's gone on in the last few days it was what my heart needed. It was very healing," said Cristina DiMuro of Trumbull, a soprano with the Trinity choir.
"They chose to come. They wanted to come, they wanted to sing and be part of this magical day ... People find comfort in music," said Jane Bernd, chair of the First Church music board.
Before the program began, the Rev. David W. Spollett, pastor of First Church, addressed the singers and audience of about 100 people.
"I want to offer a particular word of welcome to our friends who have come from Newtown. This is a remarkable act of faith on your part to be here today," Spollett said. Whether people live in Newtown or surrounding communities, he said, "Our hearts have been touched and our lives have been afflicted by the events of the last few days so it's good to be together today to sing praises to God."
The Rev. Jennifer Campbell, associate pastor, recited for the audience a prayer for the people of Newtown and the lives lost that she read during regular Sunday morning worship service. "Oh, dear God, we never know what each day will bring. We hope for joy and peace or at least the comfort of predictable routine. We're never prepared for the intrusion of evil acted out through violence and mayhem. When death rips life from our grasp, when horror blurs our sight, have mercy on us. Hold our aching souls, guide us through dizzying grief, listen to our wailing, `Why?' ... Help us, oh Holy One, to bare ourselves as believers in the covenant of your love, light, joy and hope, as we look to the new day that you have created, that you lead us into as your people."
Many religious congregations and musical groups host Messiah sing-alongs in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
"Everybody loves the Messiah. It's the penultimate Christmas oratorio," Bernd said.
But this time, the poetic words of the ancient text that dates back centuries and was set to Handel's music to create the Messiah resonated more than ever with the singers, and reached across the ages to offer some comforting words, including "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
DiMuro said the most poignant words came in her solo Sunday when she sang, "He shall speak peace."
Kotylo said the words are from centuries ago but they are timeless and appropriate. What resonated most for her were the words, "The glory of the Lord will be revealed."
"You can't say it any better than that," she said.
Sutherland said Handel was commissioned to compose the Messiah, and it was first performed in April 1742 in Dublin. The dramatic oratorio was always performed in a secular hall. It was not meant as a religious piece, despite the sacred elements of the text, but rather it was written as an opera of the day, music as entertainment, she said.
"The annual Christmas tradition that we are now part of here began in Great Britain in 1791 and then in America in 1818," Sutherland said.
Janet Kovacs of Fairfield was participating in her first Messiah Sing. She said she knew it was going to be special. "I wanted to see what it was all about. So many of my friends are in to singing," she said.
"We would come out whatever the piece of music was but this time of year the Messiah is special. It's probably one of the most widely recognized pieces of classical music. Everybody knows the Hallelujah Chorus," said John Parkinson of Fairfield, who attended the Sing with his wife Lucille.
Paul Lien of Fairfield said he and his wife Wendy thought it would be a meaningful holiday event for the whole family. He and daughter Miranda, 9, followed the music and libretto throughout the Sing. Wendy and son Max, 4½, curled up together to enjoy the music.
Several people became emotional during the sing, among them Christine Corey of West Hartford, who dabbed tears from her eyes several times. She and her husband Paul debated whether to attend the Messiah Sing. They made the long trip in inclement weather to support her nephew Eric Dreher of Bethlehem, a bass in the Trinity choir and a soloist Sunday, but also, she said, "We needed to feel inspired by the season and be a part of it."
Devon Conley, 16, of Newtown, who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School, came to the Messiah Sing to support a friend who is a member of the Trinity choir, and "to get my mind off it, if only momentarily."
Discussion about the Newtown tragedy continued at a reception that followed the performance, where one man, who asked that his name not be used said, "Someone far wiser than I said years ago the death of any child diminishes all of humanity, so you can only imagine what this is.
"It'll never be the same. It's a horrible thing. Twenty children were lost and thousands of lives will never be the same. They'll never have their childhoods either," he said of the children who witnessed the violence or lost friends.
"I think every single senator or congressman who opposes gun control should be mailed those pictures of the children every day that they're in office," he said, not referring to the smiling portraits of the children that have appeared on television and in newspapers, but rather the autopsy photos of those children. "You had teachers that stepped in front of bullets, but (politicians) won't stand up and say, `There's something wrong here,' " he said