Saturday, December 13, 2014

Festival of Carols and Nine Lessons

As we continue down our path of exploring Christmas traditions, I have discovered something unique about a Christmas Carol Service conducted each Christmas Eve in the United Kingdom. King's College was the original place for this service's first appearance in 1880, but continues till this day as part of the celebration of the season. It is called the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols - a tradition not as prevalent in the United States as it is in the UK.  This service is broadcast over the BBC airwaves each year to the entire world, if you are interested in experiencing it firsthand.  Bishop Benson, who would later become the Bishop of Canterbury, was the "father" of this service.  The first Festival was held in a smaller wooden structure used as the temporary "house" of the church in the region of Cornwall, UK, while the main cathedral was under construction in the community of Truro. As the tradition continues today, it is the awe-inspiring talent of the King's College Church Choir that brought the service to life in beautiful carols of the season live from the King's College campus since first performed by this group in 1918 at the end of World War I.  It was the desire of Bishop Benson to have a service in which the songs of the service helped "tell" the story of Christmas he wanted to bring forth in the sermon on that Christmas Eve so many years ago.  Although there is an order and structure to the service, the main desire was to lift the heart in worship, celebrating the birth of the Savior.  Not a bad way to focus our attention on a Christmas Eve, is it?

Deep in my heart I long for your temple, and with all that I am I sing joyful songs to you. (Psalm 84:2 CEV)

The opening carol has remained the same:  Once in Royal David's City.  I didn't really know this one, so I had to look up the lyrics.  Here are the words of the carol, as they are beautiful and preach a sermon all by themselves!  

Once in Royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed.
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for His bed.
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ that little child.
He came down to earth from Heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all.
And his shelter was a stable,
And his cradle was a stall.
With the poor and mean and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour Holy.
And our eyes at last shall see Him
Through His own redeeming love,
For that child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in Heaven above;
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.
Not in that poor, lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in Heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high,
When, like stars, His children crowned
All in white, shall wait around.

As the service proceeds, the carols are interspersed with nine lessons. The first begins with the reading from Genesis, pointing to our sinful nature and the fall from Paradise.  The second speaks of the promise given to Abraham, to make a great nation of his seed.  The third is taken from the Book of Isaiah in which the promise of the Messiah is the central theme.  As we continue down the pathway of lessons, we discover the fourth is again from Isaiah in which the reader directs our attention toward the restoration which comes through the life of this Savior - the restoration of peace, the reconciliation of man with God, and the revealing of peace with each other.  The fifth is the account of Gabriel coming to Mary to announce she will be with child - the life within formed there by the Spirit of God.  The sixth tells of the birth of Jesus in the humble stable.  As the seventh is revealed in carol, the story moves to visitation of the shepherds that night so long ago.  The wise men's visit and gifts make up the eighth lesson, with the ninth concluding with the passage from John 1 in which John foretold the coming of the Messiah.  

Quite a full service, to say the least!  Yet, if you imagine the heart of the Bishop those many years ago, his desire was to help us connect the scripture and worship into one blessed experience.  Today, we tend to sing, sit, listen, then sing a short song before we march out to mull around in the lobby with each other.  We don't quite engage in the type of worship experience Bishop Benson was attempting to create in this Festival of Carols and Nine Lessons.  I don't know how many of us would actually sit through this type of a long liturgical celebration of the season these days, but I like the idea of connecting with God through song and then hearing the scriptures.  No real "sermon" is preached for the words of the carols and the reading from scripture is enough to "preach" to the hearts of those engaged in the lifting of their hearts to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

As we consider how we will spend our Christmas Eve this year, maybe we won't be in a church building somewhere, but I think we can "take a lesson" from this Festival of Carols and Nine Lessons.  We might want to start a tradition of our own, celebrating with our favorite carols of Christmas, then discovering passages rich in meaning from the Word.  We may not have perfect "pitch", or be able to sing all that well a-cappella, but I know whatever joyful noise we make is music to the ears of our Lord!  Just sayin!

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