Lessons & Carols

The services of worship we use are very few:  Eucharist, Morning & Evening Prayer, Compline, Marriage, Burial, Ordination.   These are ancient rites whose forms have stood the test of sanctity over long expanses of time because of the meaning they convey.  Their meanings are only experienced by those who participate in them and are present to receive.  By being ‘present’ I mean being present and spiritually open to a message. 

Sunday we will join together in a service of Advent Lessons and Carols.   This is not one of the ancient forms of Christian worship as are the others that we use.  By comparison it is very new.  

Around 1880 choirs in England began to abandon the practice of trooping around to homes of parishioners to sing carols for them. Rather, they consolidated a carol sing into the church where everyone attended.   Shortly after the ‘carol sings’ began, lessons started to be added to tell the story of Christmas as the ‘carol sing’ progressed.  

At Christmas 1918 the West was reeling from the spiritual and physical disasters of the World War that had ended on November 11th.   The Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, a former navy chaplain, fearful that war had hardened the hearts of people against religion, instituted the Christmas service of Lessons and Carols at King’s College.  

As a musician you would think that I would find the music the most powerful form that speaks to me. It isn’t.  The most humble and beautiful thing about the Lessons and Carols service to me is the bidding prayer.  Depending on whether it is an Advent or Christmas service, the language of the prayer will change slightly.   In a very few words, though,  it contains almost the sum and substance of the teachings of Christianity.   It comes at the very beginning of the service, and can easily be missed as perfunctory and mistakenly viewed as a ‘curtain speech’ for all of the music and artistic complexity that follows.   To me at least, it is to a Lessons and Carols service what a foundation is to magnificent Cathedral.   All the meaning of the carols and the cause for all the artistry that follows is contained in that tiny prayer.  

Sunday we will join in an Advent service (vs Christmas).  An adaptation of the 1918 service, Advent Lessons and Carols focuses on the themes of Advent: the fear and hope of a Church looking toward Christ’s returning as Judge to restore peace and the message of comfort and remembrance that a Holy Infant has come into the world, one who needs our love and care.  

The form of a Lessons and Carols service, whether Christmas or Advent, despite that it is only about 140 years old, has been powerfully received by the English-speaking Church.  It at once conveys the teachings of the church with the art of music and the beauty of Christianity more powerfully than music or teaching could convey independently of each other.  

Regrettably, this year the congregation will not be able to sing.  Rather music will be offered by vocalists and instrumentalists for your contemplation and on your behalf.   Our hope is that this music brings us all comfort and (to quote the Bidding Prayer from King’s College) helps that we all…

‘remember in his name, the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry and oppressed; the sick in body and in mind and them that mourn; the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the little children, and all who know not the loving-kindness of God’ 

and that on Christmas it helps that it is…

‘our care and delight…to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass….’

In All Peace, 

Joel