PROCLAIM THE BIRTH: LESSONS & CAROLS RETURNS

PROCLAIM THE BIRTH: LESSONS & CAROLS RETURN

By Dr. John Orfe

It is hard to imagine the Christmas season without the beloved repertory of carols that proclaim the birth of Jesus and the great mystery of God’s love for humankind. The tradition of carol-singing in worship as we now know it, however, only dates back roughly 150 years.
 
The carol is a musical genre thousands of years old. Its character has always been one of festivity and joy. In pre-Christian contexts, carols celebrated seasonal milestones, most importantly the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year (on December 22 or close to it).  
 
The earliest Christian communities in imperial Rome celebrated the birth of Christ during solstice. There is a reference by a Roman bishop in 129 AD to a song called Angel’s Hymn.  More solemn and contemplative hymns emerged after Constantine Christianized Rome in the fourth century. Within the Byzantine Empire, a figure named Comas of Jerusalem wrote a Christmas Hymn in 760 for the Greek Orthodox Church.  
 
Carols flourished in early medieval Europe within the Roman church, though not greatly outside it, as they were written and sung in Latin which the laity did not speak. Saint Francis of Assisi changed all this in 1223 when he created Nativity Plays in Italy.  Actors in these plays sang songs - canticles, in the vernacular - which became so popular that peoples throughout Europe adapted the practice in their own languages and dialects. Many of these medieval carols were sung in homes and public squares rather than chapels and cathedrals.  They also frequently grafted popular folklore to the nativity story. This explains why some surviving carols include such things as cherry trees, magic gardens, or three ships in the morning.
 
Fast forward to mid-17th century England where Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans forbade carol-singing. Or, at least, he tried to. Thus began 200 years of relegating carols to the pubs and other lower-class establishments until the mid-19th century Victorian Era, where renewed attention to quality hymnody extended to hymns sung at Advent and Christmas. John Mason Neele published the Hymnal Noted in 1851, and it’s thanks to him we sing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. John Stainer published Christmas Carols New and Old in 1878.
 
Which brings us to Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, England, 10 PM Christmas Eve, in the year 1880.  This is the first documented service of Nine Lessons and Carols.  The lessons, the heart of the service, were Scripture passages that proclaim the Fall of humankind, the prophesied coming of the Messiah, and the fulfillment of those prophecies in the birth of Jesus Christ. The Right Reverend Edward White Benson, Bishop of Truro, organized the service to redirect winter festivities out of the pubs and into the church.  As the cathedral was under construction, the first Lessons and Carols service took place in a wooden shed.

Lessons and Carols as we know it was first held at King’s College, Cambridge, England, on Christmas Eve 1918.  Eric Milner-White, an army chaplain who had served in WWI, had seen firsthand the toll of war. As newly appointed Dean of King’s College, he sought to mitigate the hardness of public attitudes toward religion with more imaginative worship within the Church of England. A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was his solution in offering solace to a population decimated, distressed, numbed, and bereaved.
 
Almost immediately, other churches adapted the service for their own use. A wider frame began to grow when the service was first broadcast in 1928 concurrently with the publication of the Oxford Book of Carols.  Nowadays, the service has become public property.  King’s College’s website reports:  
“[The broadcast] continued even during the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel and the name of King’s could not be broadcast for security reasons. Sometime in the early 1930s the BBC began broadcasting the service on overseas programs. It is estimated that there are millions of listeners worldwide, including those to Radio Four in the United Kingdom. In recent years it has become the practice to broadcast a digital recording on Christmas Day on Radio Three, and since 1963 a shorter service has been filmed periodically for television. Recordings of carols by Decca and EMI have also served to spread its fame.”
 
Only in 2020 did the global pandemic force a replacement of King’s live service with prerecorded material. In 2021, many are experiencing realities and feelings not dissimilar to those felt in 1918.  While a war between nations may engender feelings of community within the respective warring parties, a pandemic – a war against an invisible enemy – creates fear, confusion, and isolation.  
 
Dean Milner-White summarized the purpose of Lessons and Carols this way:  “The main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God... seen through the windows and words of the Bible.”  However the service is adapted, whatever the music sung and played, its center is still found by those who go in heart and mind to hear the good news of Emmanuel, God with us.
FUMC’s Lessons and Carols service will return in-person Saturday, December 11 at 6 PM, and Sunday, December 12, at 11:15 AM.  It will present the lessons as they have appeared unchanged at King’s College since 1918, including the passages from Genesis 3 and 22 and the final lesson from the Gospel of John.  The 2021 program, designed by Dr. John Orfe, features carols from England, the European continent, American Appalachia, Black American Christmas Spirituals, and a world premiere setting of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.  Choirmaster Lara Reem and Dr. Orfe will lead the combined forces of the FUMC Sanctuary Choir, orchestra, organ, handbells, and congregation.