Reflection on “Lessons and Carols” for December 20, 2015

Today we continue the tradition of a service of Lessons and Carols for Advent or Christmas. Since our beginnings, humans have combined music and song with sacred words and later readings to create the ritual flow for worship. The communal act of creating a rhythm of sacred text and music is deeply woven into the human sense of public ritual. And the service of Lessons and Carols draws deeply from this ancient human ritual rhythm.
The first Christian services to be shaped around the alternation of text and song were not associated with Christmas. Christmas is itself a new addition to the Christian calendar. The late medieval tradition of Tennebrae worship for Good Friday is probably the earliest Christian worship based on a series of readings and music. On Good Friday, a reading from the passion of Christ would be followed by a hymn, as a candle would be extinguished. Often these ancient Good Friday services would involve the growing darkness as seven candles were extinguished, with the same number of readings and songs. In the final darkness, there would sometimes be a loud slamming noise to symbolize the closing of the door of the tomb.
There is some evidence that the Christmas tradition of Lessons and Carols is patterned after the Tenebrae, as the season of Christmas and Epiphany involved the theme of now growing light.
But in the mid 19th Century, in England, Christmas had gotten out of hand. Christmas often does for various reasons. But in England it had then become a time of high revelry which had devolved into drunken violence as mobs grew more and more destructive. Think about our experience here in Madison with Halloween, and you will get the idea. An Anglican pastor, Edward Benson, decided to drop the traditional Church of England Eucharist on Christmas Eve (a rather stuffy service that no one was interested in attending), and replace it with what was then a contemporary worship format: a series of readings interspersed within popular music: the Christmas carols we now know as traditional.
Although there was some success with this as the eighteen century came to a close, the service of Lessons and Carols became fixed in the hearts of English people during World War I. In the dark days of the war, Eric Milner-White’s service at Kings College became a fixture of Christmas, using English Christmas carols and readings from the Hebrew Scripture which implied the prediction of Jesus as the Messiah who fulfills the intention of God.
Lessons and Carols has become ingrained in the English celebration of Christmas. And with the adoption of the many Victorian Christmas traditions such as Christmas trees, mistletoe, Santa Claus, caroling, gift giving, holly and ivy; this service has become part of our Christmas worship experience in America.
But we are Americans. And we are Lutheran. So there have been some adaptations. For us, the service form is not just for Christmas Eve. It can be anytime in Advent. These days in Lutheran worship, we are moving away from the word “lessons” to the word “readings.” Lutheran worship is more of a public celebration and declaration of God’s presence rather than something to be learned as in school. And our form does not used prescribed readings, but uses different readings for the Advent season and our different context.
To be honest, some of the original readings from the Hebrew Scriptures were probably misinterpreted and thus misused. The Hebrew prophets were never talking about a baby Jesus. And to insert Jesus into the material denigrates the suffering and longing of these ancient people and ,well, to miss the prophetic point.
Today as we turn to the longing of the prophets, we are reminded by the Hebrew readings that suffering and longing are things we humans have felt since our beginning, something that is profoundly expressed in the life death and resurrection of Jesus, something that we still feel today, and something that always has been very close to the heart of God. To that end our readings and carols maintain the pattern, but this service today has a distinctive feel.
Finally, for us, the Eucharist is the Lord’s Supper and is always appropriate when we gather for worship. So today we share this fitting feast as we prepare to our hearts for Christmas.
So welcome to this service which involves so much music, prepared by our musicians and Kristie Halverson our director of music.