Nine Lessons and Carols
This may be a little too “inside baseball” but every once in a while we get a question about our Christmas Eve service. Why do we have communion some years but not others? Why do we sing lessons and carols? What happened to candlelight?
Through some years of experimentation we’ve settled into a pattern. On Christmas Eve, every year, we adapt a service of lessons and carols to celebrate the coming of Jesus. (Don’t worry: there’s still candlelight. We light candles at the end of the service during “Silent Night” in order to welcome the light of the world coming to us.)
The format of the worship service is borrowed from the Festival of Lessons and carols begun at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge (UK) in 1918. The service is so beloved that the BBC sends the broadcast over the radio to millions around the world. You can find it sometime on the morning of Christmas Eve.
Begun in 1918 as a way to reintroduce imaginative worship into worship that wanted some renewal, the service follows the story of salvation history, beginning with Adam and Eve in a garden, and ending the Gospel of John: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Interspersed with the readings are musical pieces sung by the choir or congregation to celebrate Christmas.
The choir is famously good, and shares a bit of high drama. One of the notable traditions on the musical side is picking a young boy to sing the first verse of the old hymn, “Once in Royal David’s City” as a solo. Remember, the broadcast is heard by millions around the world, so who gets the solo could be a fraught question. Rather than picking a soloist days or weeks ahead, and risking an enormous amount of pressure on a ten year old, the choirmaster begins to conduct and, a few beats ahead, points to the young boy who will sing about the coming of Jesus to millions.
The service is long enough that communion doesn’t quite fit, which is a shame. But the scope of the service focuses us on the saving work of God which, in its enormity, demands all our attention.
The story begins in a garden, telling of our well-known separation from God. The rest of the service is about our healing—in God’s promise to Abraham, in the prophecies of Isaiah, in the annunciation, in shepherds and angels, in wise men, and in the Word made flesh.
It’s long enough, then, that we realize the depths of the story of salvation. It is not a picturesque Christmas card creche, but the response of a God who has been at work for a long time in order to shine light into darkness.
Genesis 3:8-15, 17-19
Isaiah 9:2, 6-7
Isaiah 11:1-4a, 6-9
Luke 1:26-35, 38