This year’s Christmas program is A Festival of Lessons and Carols, and was last done here in 2015. The historic model for this service was first performed at King’s College, England in 1918 as a gift to the community. College chaplain Eric Milner-White had just returned from World War 1 and designed the service as a gift to the community. The King’s College website has this to say about the service:
A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was introduced to King’s on Christmas Eve 1918 to offer solace to people who were distressed, exhausted, injured and, in many cases, bereaved at the end of the First World War. In this pandemic year many people are experiencing some of these same realities and feelings. But while war gave people a great sense of togetherness and community, the pandemic forces people to be isolated, distanced and anxious.
In addition, the service is held each year by literally thousands of churches all around the world, some in elaborate choral settings like ours will be, and some with simple hymns.
Wherever the service is heard and however it is adapted, whether the music is provided by choir or congregation, the pattern and strength of the service, as Milner-White pointed out, derive from the lessons: “The theme of the service is the development of the loving purposes of God as seen through the windows and words of the Bible.” The carols are there to guide the individual members of the congregation in their response to the Word of God.
The lessons are Scriptures chosen from both the Old and New Testaments that begin with the fall of man in Genesis 3 and end with the “Word made flesh” from John 1. Regarding this last lesson, the King’s College website says:
The ninth reading at our service concludes with this great declaration, ‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth’. The whole service leads us towards this great sentence: a sentence that invites us to remember that the one who created us does not stand aloof from our suffering, but shares it with us and somehow transforms it into peace of heart and mind, and an attitude of kindness towards others.
You can see how appropriate such a service is at this time, rich with God’s Word and speaking to our circumstances. The music chosen for the service provides commentary and further illumination on the lessons. In other words, the selection of the anthems was Scripture driven.
This year’s lessons are those drawn from the traditional service at King’s with the exception that the service is shortened to eight lessons:
Genesis 3:8-15 God tells us that sin entered the world through man’s disobedience.
“Of the Father’s Love Begotten”
Genesis 22:15-18 God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall the nations of the earth be blessed.
Isaiah 9:2, 6-7 The prophet foretells the coming of the Savior.
Isaiah 11:1-9 The peace that Christ will bring is foreshown.
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”
Luke 2:1-7 St. Luke tells of the birth of Jesus.
Luke 2:8-16 The Shepherds go to the manger.
“Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light”
Matthew 2:1-11 The wise men are led by the star to Jesus.
John 1:1-14 St John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation.
For the readings this year, the above themes will proceed each Scripture. These can help focus our thoughts as we sing each anthem. So just as the Scriptures inform the choosing of the music, so they can inspire our singing!