Almost 20 years ago, my husband and I began a new family tradition that has continued to this day. On the morning of Christmas Eve, we gather the children and sit, pajama-clad, in the family room to listen to “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols,” broadcast live from King’s College in Cambridge, England. We are a family of musicians and my husband is a full-time church worker, so it’s an opportunity for us to reflect on the Christ Child’s birth without the pressure of thinking about what song is coming next in the service or who is going to help sing or play it.
We print out the downloadable service folder and follow along, listening to the readings, praying the prayers, and joining in on the congregational singing. Once the broadcast is over, our day kicks into high gear as we prepare for an evening of services in our own congregation. Sometimes that has meant a second Lessons and Carols liturgy in one day. But we count that as blessing since, for my family, as for many of the world’s Christians, Lessons and Carols is one of the most meaningful parts of our Christmas celebration. If you have never attended a Lessons and Carols service, here are five reasons to do so this year, either at a local congregation, or thanks to the wonders of technology, on the other side of the ocean.
1) You Will Hear God’s Word
Lessons and Carols is not a musical concert or play, but rather the story of God’s plan for the salvation of mankind as revealed in His Word. That story begins with the Genesis account of the fall of Adam and Eve and concludes with the Word made flesh in the first chapter of John. Each reading is followed by one or more carols, allowing for further meditation on the text. You will leave a Lessons and Carols service veritably drenched in Biblical language.
2) You Will Sing, and Singing Is Good
People don’t sing enough anymore. (Instead, they listen to mass-produced music and possibly sing along.) Not only do people not sing anymore, they don’t sing together anymore. Why do we get chills those rare times when we are at a sporting event and everyone joins in the national anthem? It’s not just the song, but the corporate nature of the singing. There are very few places these days where that sort of group singing happens. People sing at birthday parties, maybe on New Year’s Eve if they can remember the words to “Auld Lang Syne,” and they sing in church. A Lessons and Carols service is a unique opportunity to hear and sing songs that the larger culture mostly ignores.
3) You Will Unite with Christians Across Time and Space
You will be united across time and space, not just with those standing at your left and right, but with Christians around the world both today and in the past who have listened to the same readings and sung the same texts. I am reminded of one of my favorite hymns, not a Christmas hymn but an evening hymn, by nineteenth-century hymnist John Ellerton: “The sun, that bids us rest, is waking Thy saints beneath the western skies, And hour by hour, as day is breaking, Fresh hymns of thankful praise arise” (“The Day Thou Gavest”). There was a time the sun never set on the British Empire. That time may be past, but the sun assuredly never sets on Christ’s Church, since at any given moment someone, somewhere, is praying and singing to His name.
4) You Will Be Transported to Another World
You will be transported to a world removed from the one with which you contend on a daily basis. At this time of year, instead of allowing Christians more time for religious observance, the culture ramps up a couple of notches, mercilessly piling on the activities and special events. Even in the church, sometimes there is less interest in creating an occasion for reverence and reflection than there is in throwing a party.
There is nothing wrong with parties. But the Incarnation is the most mind-blowing, awe-inspiring event in the history of the universe, and we Christians can sometimes be strangely casual about it. We’ve heard it all before, donchyaknow. The other-worldliness of Lessons and Carols is a great antidote to such casualness. It will plop you down in the middle of that long-ago field with the shepherds and remind you of what it means to be sore afraid before trumpeting the amazing news that you need fear not because the message is one that brings good tidings of great joy for all people.
5) You Will Remember What Christmas Is All About
You will be reminded, as Linus reminded Charlie Brown, of “what Christmas is all about.” At this time of year there is no shortage of “Christmas.” It’s everywhere, but the world’s Christmas is not the Church’s Christmas. Most of the “Christmas” songs you hear on the radio aren’t Christmas songs at all, but celebrations of winter, family, love, giving, and peace on earth. All of those are certainly good things, but they aren’t Christmas. Christmas is “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing,” and Lessons and Carols makes that abundantly clear.
Time is in short supply during the month of December. But the return on a Lessons and Carols service will far exceed the small amount of time you put into it. In Cambridge, some people line up days in advance in the hope of gaining admittance to the Festival of Lessons and Carols that started them all. Set aside an hour this Christmas season, and give yourself and your family a gift that will cost absolutely nothing but will immeasurably enrich your spirit throughout the year ahead.
“A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” from King’s College will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 4 on December 24, 2014, at 10:00 a.m. EST. Listen live here. The service is also broadcast by American Public Media on a number of public radio stations in the United States (check local listings) and is rebroadcast by the BBC several times during the week after Christmas.