What’s so special about lessons and carols?

During the past few seasons here at Westminster–specifically on each Third Sunday of Advent–we’ve added an Advent twist to the beloved lessons and carols tradition, and this storied format now works its magic on us in a very special way, much to the delight of all who participate.

Lessons and carols services are all modeled, in one way or another, after the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, which was first held on Christmas Eve, 1918.  The 1918 service was planned by Eric Milner-White, who at the age of 34 had just been appointed Dean of King’s College after experience as an army chaplain (which convinced him that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship!).   The worship was planned by Arthur Henry Mann, organist at King’s from 1876 to 1929.  A revision of the Order of Service was made in 1919, involving rearrangement of the lessons.  In almost every year since, some carols have been changed and some new ones introduced by successive organists.  The backbone of the service–the lessons and the prayers–has remained virtually unchanged.

Almost immediately, other churches began adapting the lessons and carols service for their own use (as we do at Westminster today).  A wider frame began to grow when the service was first broadcast in 1928 and, with the exception of 1930, the King’s College Festival of Lessons and Carols has been broadcast annually, even during World War II, when the ancient glass (and also all the heat) had been removed from the Chapel.  Sometime in the early 1930s the BBC began broadcasting the service on overseas programs, and it is estimated that there are now millions of listeners worldwide.  In these and in other ways, the service has become public property and symbolizes the heart and spirit of Christmas.  Some have listened in tents on the foothills of Mt. Everest; others have listened in the desert.   Many listen at home, while busy with their own Christmas preparations.

Wherever the service is heard and however it is adapted–as in Westminster’s own worship this morning, which takes a decidedly Advent view of things (I have changed both the "usual" content and order of Scripture lessons)–its pattern and strength derive from the combination of powerful Scripture lessons and beloved carols.  As Dean Milner-White pointed out long ago, "the main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God. . .seen through the windows and words of the Bible."  This theme holds true for our services, just as it did in 1918.

The yearning and anticipation experienced as we prepare for the birth of Christ will be seen in profound ways throughout this morning’s worship.  It is our prayer that the powerful combination of Scripture lessons, choral music, organ/instrumental music, and congregational hymns will provide much consolation and joy, along with thought-provoking meditations for each worshiper’s Advent journey.   If some of the hymns are unfamiliar to you, we urge you to sing with gusto regardless, and we hope you will find new favorites among them.

I am immensely grateful to the members of our Chancel Choir, who have worked so faithfully and diligently over a period of months to prepare the music for today’s lessons and carols.  Theirs is a true labor of love, and my hat is off to each and every one of them for so selflessly sharing their gifts with us!   Together, we are delighted and grateful to have our friends Marcia Edwards (violin), Kathy Hancock (flute), and Mark Hill (drums–it is Drum Sunday in our Advent wreath lighting line-up, after all!) participating with us this morning.  A wide variety of musical styles is presented, everything from early chants to medieval folk tunes, ancient chorales, contemporary choral settings, and much more.  Each musical selection was chosen to illuminate the beloved passages from Scripture in its own way, sometimes directly quoting Scripture, at other times alluding to a particular point rather indirectly.  In Carolyn Jennings’ A New Magnificat, the less familiar but equally stunning Old Testament Song of Hannah is juxtaposed against the more familiar New Testament Song of Mary, bringing both to light in new and intensely powerful ways.  Altos sing the part of Hannah, while sopranos sing Mary.  The rest of the choir, along with the congregation, is involved in singing heartfelt refrains.  Paul Manz’s well-known and sublimely beautiful anthem, E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come–its text based on Revelations 22–brings the lessons to a fitting close.  Arising out of a personal crisis in Manz’s family (the desperate illness of a beloved child), this gem of an anthem puts it all together: the Gospel message of profound hope in the midst of despair, the coming of Christ to redeem humanity, the rejoicing that our salvation is assured, the peace of knowing that Christ’s reign is eternal, bringing us out of darkness and into the glory of God’s everlasting light and love.

Most of all, these lessons and carols, like lessons and carols everywhere, are about Love: God’s abiding, overwhelming love for all creation.

Organ preludes this morning come from the great masters, J. S. Bach and Johann Pachelbel.  Come early to hear all the music (preludes begin about 16 minutes prior to service start time).  Many of you are likely familiar with Bach’s Wachet Auf, particularly the Schübler Chorale played this morning, as Bach himself adapted it for organ from his Cantata No. 140.  It is a perennial favorite.  Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Savior of the Nations, Come) is one of Bach’s three large organ pieces (part of a collection known as The Great 18 Chorales) based on this famous Advent chorale.  Bach’s sublimely beautiful piece features an ornately ornamented cantus firmus (melody) in the soprano line.   It is so ornate, in fact, that only those most familiar with the chorale would even recognize it.  But that is the point: this was one of the most widely sung chorales in Bach’s time, as familiar then as Amazing Grace is to us now.  Pachelbel’s organ music has been featured several times in recent weeks.   This morning’s pieces are selected from his 95 beautiful Magnificat Fugues.  These small gems are almost all based on free themes rather than on Magnificat chants.  Besides being treasures in and of themselves, they served a practical purpose as well: the little fugues were likely meant to help singers establish pitch and/or served as organ preludes and interludes to fill out the singing of the Magnificat at Vespers services.  Because Mary’s Magnificat features so prominently in our thinking about Advent, Pachelbel’s fugues give a proper nod to this tradition.  And speaking of Mary, the gorgeous choral setting of the famous Ave Maria text, by Spanish composer Javier Busto (b. 1949), has been a real find for our choir.  We love this piece and gratefully sing it in memory of our dear friend and fellow singer, Mickey Henriquez, who died nearly a year ago.

Organ postludes feature wonderfully quirky organ carol arrangements by Hermann Schroeder (1904-1984), a German composer and Roman Catholic church musician whose works epitomize the neo-Baroque style.  Some of the carols you’ll hear are familiar to many Americans, others only vaguely so, but all are charming and creatively arranged.  Enjoy!

As the magnificent chorale Wachet Auf proclaims, "Sleepers, wake!. . .The time has come. . .The Bridegroom is in sight. Alleluia!"