Most of us enjoy at Christmas time, singing or listening to Christmas carols. In many of our churches, including Stalmine St. James, there will be a “Festival of Lessons and Carols”, in which many of our favourite carols are mixed up with (usually nine) Bible readings. But why is the service traditionally in this format? And why those particular readings, of which only three or four tell the familiar “Christmas story”?
There is an old adage that when giving a talk, lecture or even sermon, you should first tell your audience what you are going to tell them; then tell them it; and then tell them what you have just told them. The readings, which provide a framework in which the carols sit, do just that.
The first four readings tell us the reasons behind Christmas; the next four describe the events themselves, and the final reading, what it is all about.
So we start with the reason for Jesus’ birth. Jews and Christians believe that when God created the universe, it was entirely perfect. Genesis 1.31 tells us that “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” But unfortunately, into that perfect creation, he introduced imperfect humans, who were quickly disobedient – and are still being disobedient! The Bible tells us that the original “sin” was when Adam and Eve ate the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. From that moment on, mankind needed to turn away from their disobedience and turn back to God. The Jews expected a Messiah to come to their aid – Christians believe that Jesus is that Messiah. So the reason for Jesus’ birth started with that original sin, the consequences of which we hear about in the first reading, Genesis 3, verses 8 to 19.
After that, we hear about what is going to happen. The second reading from Genesis 22, verses 15 to 18 describes Abraham’s reward for his devotion to God, and the promise that from him will come blessing on all the nations of the earth – it will be a descendent of Abraham who redeems the human race. The third reading (Isaiah 9, verses 2, 6 and 7) prophesies the coming of the Messiah, the chosen one, whose birth we are waiting to celebrate. “Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given” – Isaiah’s words set memorably by Handel in the well-known Christmas section of his oratorio, “Messiah.” In the fourth reading (Micah 5, verses 2, 4 and 5), we hear a forecast about the future importance of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. (The carol describes it as “royal David’s city.” In fact, the population of Bethlehem in biblical times is estimated to be about 600; around the population of present-day Out Rawcliffe!)
Following these Old Testament prophecies, we come to the story of Jesus’ birth, taken from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The fifth reading describes Gabriel’s visit to Mary, to tell her that she will become Jesus’ mother (Luke 1, verses 26 to 38). Then Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (Luke 2, verses 1 to 7); the coming of the shepherds (Luke 2, verses 8 to 16); and the arrival of the Magi (Matthew 2, verses 1 to 12.)
The final reading is the Gospel reading for Christmas Day, St. John’s great summing up of Jesus’ existence and work (John 1, verses 1 to 14):
“He was in the beginning, with God.” “(He) became flesh, and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory – the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father.”
The carols and hymns are carefully chosen to supplement and illustrate those texts. For example, if we sing, “While Shepherds watched”, it makes sense to do so adjacent to the seventh reading. Likewise, “We Three Kings” would be close to the eighth reading.
So that is the format of the “traditional, Nine Lessons and Carols Service” – but how traditional? Well, the first one was held at King’s College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve 1918. It was devised by the Dean, Eric Milner-White, as an alternative to the Christmas Eve, Book of Common Prayer, Evening Prayer service, and was based on an earlier service used in Truro Cathedral. It has been broadcast from King’s College virtually every Christmas Eve since 1928 (being officially discontinued during WW2 for security reasons, although its doubtful whether anyone was fooled – the service still went on, un-broadcast!) Many of what we think of as “traditional” Christmas carols only date back to Victorian times, (as do turkey, and Christmas trees,) so our “traditions” are not always that old!
I hope I’ve whetted your appetite. This year’s (2022’s) Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols took place on Sunday 18th December. Do come along this Christmas, enjoy singing and listening to the carols and Christmas hymns, and hear the story afresh.