Lexington Presbyterian Church
Sunday, December 27, 2020
"Good morning, and Merry Christmas! I’ve been asked to say a few words about the Lessons and Carols service.
There are actually many kinds of Lessons and Carols services, but they all derive from the original “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols,” a service for Christmas Eve, which began in 1880 in the small English city of Truro, the ‘capital’ of the county of Cornwall in southwest England. The Rt. Rev. Edwin White Benson, Bishop of Truro, and later Archbishop of Canterbury, hoping to draw the people in his charge away from the prevailing secularization of their holiday practices, drew up a service of lessons and carols for use on Christmas Eve in the temporary wooden building which was being used while a new cathedral church was constructed.
In 1918 this service was adapted for use in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, by the Rev. Eric Milner-White, the new dean of the chapel, who would remain in that post for more than twenty years.. The Cambridge service was first broadcast on radio in 1928, and the BBC began international broadcasts a few years later. After the opening prayer, called ‘The Bidding,’ in which the congregation is called to listen and to join in prayer for the needs of all in the world, the first lesson, about the fall of humanity represented by the sin of Adam and Eve, sets out humankind’s need for a Redeemer. The subsequent lessons include God’s covenant with Abraham, and the repeated promise of Messiah in the words of different prophets. There are several lessons about the birth of Jesus, and the service concludes with the opening verses of John’s gospel. Dean Milner-White described the service in these words:
“The main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God”…. “seen
through the windows and words of the Bible.”
This service, initiated in Truro, and brought to the world’s attention from Cambridge, has come to be claimed and put into regular use all around the English-speaking world (and in non-English-speaking countries). The service has served to share with the musical world the exceptional singing and repertoire of the King’s College Choir, under the leadership of an impressive line of choral directors.
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols service was first held locally at Lexington Presbyterian Church during the late 1950s by the late Mary Monroe Penick, who served as this church’s organist/director of music for 46 years until her retirement in 1977. The observance has continued through my long tenure, with direction shared by my colleagues in Junior Choir and the Lam Handbell Choirs: Marjorie Phillips, Charlene Jarrett, Linda Donald, Ruth Floyd, Mary Mills, and Mayumi Smitka. A side note: in conjunction with the service, Miss Penick instituted the practice of decorating the church sanctuary with wreaths, garlands, and poinsettias. The service was taken up by many spread locally to many other churches, and has been held for many years at Washington and Lee.
The spread and imitation of the King’s College service was fueled by the publication in 1961 of a book of fifty carols from the King’s College repertoire. Over the years, several additional volumes have been published, and included in them has been an Advent service, with a different sequence of lessons covering a wider range of Biblical texts of prophecy.
These services have provided important opportunities for choirs and composers. There is a huge quantity of wonderful sacred choral music for Christmas, and this service provides a better vehicle for more of this music than just inserting extra songs into a regular worship order. Many churches have turned to this format for the Sunday after Christmas, giving hard-working choir members a day off, and making it possible for the congregation to sing carols which have not been used in other services.
The concept of the ‘Lessons and Carols’ service has moved far beyond the original liturgy. Worship services and concerts of all kinds abound, crafted in many different ways. Those organizing these events have turned to a wider range of different scripture passages, or to selections of outstanding Christmas poetry readings. They have crafted programs with focus ranging from Advent to Epiphany, and have collected music representing certain periods of history or on certain geographical areas.
Now I will tell you about today’s service [i.e., Sunday, December 27]. The Rev. Bronwen Boswell, our general presbyter, and her staff of the Shenandoah Presbytery, came up with the idea of today’s service to specifically acknowledge the hard work of clergy, musicians, and technical staff throughout these long months of worship adapted for Covid times, and to offer all of those workers a Sunday off from preparing and presenting a full service in their individual local churches. What is offered to you today is a service for Christmas, in fact, for the Sunday after Christmas. The Old Testament scriptures are mostly left behind so that we can focus on the birth of Jesus and his presentation at the temple. Pastors and other readers, and musicians from throughout the Presbytery have contributed recordings of spoken lessons and prayers, and of music. For all of the familiar carols, you will be able to read the words right on your screen, and sing along. If you’re a harmony singer, you’ll have to exercise your brain and memory a little. It’s a service presented from many lovely settings, both indoor and out, with different instruments and voices. And yes, I was asked to be a part of it, for which I am grateful., so you’ll be in your home sanctuary for some of the time.
As you enter this lovely service of worship, I ask you open your hearts to feel the depth of shared community which is ours with so many others throughout the Shenandoah Presbytery."