On Christmas Eve at 3 p.m. in England, a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols will be held in the chapel of King’s College at Cambridge University. It will be broadcast live around the world, in the United States over public radio at 9 a.m. Central Standard Time. (For one of many audio streams, click here. For the printed order of service click here.)
Many articles have been published to mark this anniversary and tell the history of this popular and widely imitated service. One blog post in the Guardian tells the story of the origin of this Christmas Eve service at Truro Cathedral in 1880. Another Guardian article features an interview with Stephen Cleobury who will retire this year after 37 years as the director of the King’s College Chapel choir. The BBC, which has broadcast the service since 1926, provides an overview of the history. King’s College provides a copy of the 1918 order of service.
I’ve listened to the service most years since at least the late 1980s, usually while wrapping Christmas presents. I received an LP recording of the service for Christmas some years earlier. Since my first year in college, I’ve also been to many services of lessons and carols that follow the same format and very similar prayer texts. Here are a few thoughts on this year’s selections and on the finer points of the service’s structure.
This Year’s New Carol
For over three decades the college has commissioned a new carol for the service each year. This year’s is a setting of a Charles Wesley text by Judith Weir. In the order of service, Weir describes the short stanzas of “O Mercy Divine” as “almost haiku-like.” The most poignant of them captures the world-turned-upside-down theme of Mary’s Magnificat
“The wise men adore,
and bring him their store,
the rich are permitted to follow the poor.”
It often said of Wesley’s hymns that they begin on earth and end in heaven. In its full form, this is no exception. It begins speaking of “an infant” and “Adam’s frail race” but ends
“And here will I lie,
till raised up on high,
with him on the cross I recover the sky.”
But Weir omits five of Wesley’s fourteen stanzas including this last one. In her interpretation the hymn concludes in earthly humility.
“Like him would I be,
my master I see
in a stable; a stable shall satisfy me.”
This is perhaps appropriate to its place in the service following the eighth lesson telling of the coming of the Wise Men. After the ninth lesson (John’s prologue), the collect for Christmas Eve, and the blessing, Wesley does get the last word. His “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is the service’s final text. It concludes
“born to raise the sons of earth,
born to given the second birth.”
Among the changing music of the service, two of my favorite’s are returning this year. They are Elizabeth Poston’s setting of the anonymous text from New England, “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree” and John Rutter’s setting of Robert Herrick’s “What Sweeter Music.” The latter was commissioned for this service in 1987. I like the liturgical or courtly procession of Herrick’s text and Rutter’s text is idyllic and dependably singable. My wife and I own a two-disc collection of the commissioned carols and often refer to it as “the challenging carols.” And indeed many are difficult, even if rewarding, to hear. It is not so with Rutter’s.
If you aren’t familiar with these two, there is a fine performance of “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree” here by my university’s A Cappella choir, and here’s is the link to a 2008 performance of “What Sweeter Music” by the King’s College Chapel choir.
One aspect of the structure of the service that is often over looked in adaptations of in the U.S.A. is that the carol immediately before the first lesson is intended as an “invitatory carol,” that a call to worship, or an introduction to the service. This year, as often, the text begins “Up! good Christian folk, and listen.” It is a sung introduction to the lessons which is in some respect parallel in function to the bidding prayer. While the worship books of the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) all provide orders of worship based on the King’s service, none of them mark out this purpose for a song at this point. Indeed the Presbyterian and Episcopal books call for no song at this point. Having it and marking it as the “invitatory” carol shows the influences of prayer book offices of morning and evening prayer on the service. They each have their own invitatory that introduces the recitations from the psalms.
Lastly, the bidding prayer composed by Eric Milder-White is rightly prized and celebrated. I think one of its many strengths is the way that it is specific to the time and place of the service: “this Christmas eve” and “this chapel, dedicated to Mary, his most blessed Mother.” Similarly it bids prayers for, “the dominions of our sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth,” “this University and City of Cambridge,” and “the two royal and religious Foundations of King Henry VI here and at Eaton.” In services I’ve attended and in the service books of the denominations above these specific are replaced with generics: “this house of prayer,” “our city and country.” It takes a little skill to work proper nouns into these phrases while maintaining the cadence of the prayer. I think it is worth trying to do.
All in all it is the simplicity and adaptability of the format and its focus on song and scripture that make the service successful.