The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is a Church of England Christmas Eve service that began at Cambridge University's King's College Chapel in 1918, was first broadcast over the radio in 1928, and still draws millions of listeners around the world each year. The basic design, the reading of a Biblical "lesson" followed by a carol, has been copied widely in the Anglican church family, including American's Episcopalian churches. I've heard broadcasts of "Lessons and Carols" a couple of times on Christmas Eve, though I don't know if I've ever heard the full-bore Cambridge version. At King's College Chapel the readings are always the same, coming from both the 'old' and 'new' testaments, while the carols vary from year to year. American houses of worship tend to trim the pattern down some.
We heard an "Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols" last Sunday at a local church, St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Mass., where the number of lessons was reduced to six, followed by sets of two carols: one more challenging piece of music sung by the chorus alone, followed by a hymn-book carol sung by the whole congregation. I walked away thinking there's still a lot of life left in this traditional service and that the basic format allows for a lot of creativity.
The choral music, most of it new to me, was great. After the first reading (from Genesis) the church chorus offered "Creator Alme Siderum" ("Creator of the Starry Skies") by 16th century composer Michael Preatorius with Latin lyrics followed by English translations.The second choral work, a modern setting by Peter Warlock of a medieval text: "Adam lay ybounden," was familiar to me because Sting included it on a recent album, one of my favorite contemporary Christmas albums. The work has a haunting melody for a theme described as: "Adam and Eve rebel and are cast out of the Garden of Eden."
I know how they feel. I call it 'winter.'
The other pieces sung by the church chorus were all settings by 20th century composers: Paul Manz ("E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come"), Vaughan Williams ("This is the Truth Sent from Above"), Elizabeth Poston, and Paul Hadley.
While unfamiliar, the works were beautiful and accessible on first hearing. Lyrics came from earlier centuries, such as this verse from Poston's 'Jesus Christ the Apple Tree': "This fruit doth make my soul to thrive/ It keeps my dying faith alive; /Which makes my soul in hast to be/ With Jesus Christ the apple tree."
Comparing Christ to the apple tree may be a little unfashionable, but when it comes to old, weirdly puzzling stuff, nothing can beat what you're liable to find in the Bible. The end of the second book of Genesis (the service's first reading) concludes with these shockers, following upon God's production of a 'helpmeet' for Adam via bone surgery: "That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh."
Uh, what father and mother? We're hearing the creation story with Adam as central figure, and I really can't recall any mention of Mom and Pop (not surprising perhaps since Adam, we are told, was compounded of dust). We then hear: "Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame." Why should they have? The sentence implies that a concept of 'shame' pre-existed the creation of human beings. It's as if they were created to illustrate it.Then we come to that second reading (the aforementioned "Adam and Eve rebel and are cast out of the Garden of Eden"). If this isn't entrapment, I don't know what it is. God creates the tree of knowledge, an attractive nuisance for sure, and says "that's the best one, so don't touch it." Once Adam discovers by sad experience why the tree is special, he knows he has to hide. What 'knowledge' turns out to be is knowing that one is naked -- perhaps a way of distinguishing humans as essentially different from the animals, who never have to decide what to wear in the morning. When Adam tells God why he's hiding (“I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid”), God is on to him like a dog on a bone. 'Ah ha, [my own translation] you must have eaten from the tree I told you stay away from. That's the truth, here's the consequence: banishment, mortality, labor, pain.' A little steep?
Luke's account of the annunciation of God's plan for Mary (Luke 1:26-56, the sixth and final lesson in this version of the service) raises tricky moral and epistemological questions as well. Told of her destiny by the angel, Mary responds, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” The angel's answer, as we read in the New Standard Revision: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you." In the translation read at the service the verb "overcome" is used for both these encounters, more squarely raising the question of Mary's consent. Would 'no' mean 'no' to the divinity?
These ancient texts may leave us with a little more second-guessing than the "Lessons and Carols" services have intended to provoke. But both words, and music, and especially putting the two so closely together, provide a rich experience. It's one that I will happily put under the memory tree this Christmas.