Sunday, December 20, 2009

a (virtual) service of carols and Lessons

click to go to Ellee Seymour's homepageMy cycle having frozen solid - brakes, gears and wheels, I've taken to walking to work and elsewhere, although - unlike Ellee Seymour (right), I haven't done a twenty-mile hike for many years, and that was because we took the wrong path descending from a Highlands hill.

It gave one time to think walking to the Draughty Old Fen's St Gallicus, though, for its annual tradition of a Service of Carols and Lessons by Candlelight, which was only possible because, as an old building, the church has lots of niches and architectural whimsies on which candles could be placed. It was good both to celebrate the joy of Christmas in the present and revisit the past and, if you can't make it home for Christmas, or like carols, or are just curious, I'd like to try to recreate the Order of Service for you. (Apologies to Pam and others who find it difficult to access YouTube videos.)

Rector Pellegrina processed up through the altar rails with Ludus, a Licensed Lay Minister, and the fourth candle on the Advent wreath was lit.

I'm told Cambridge has more choirs per square mile than anywhere else in the world, and can certainly believe it. For the Introit, we had the choir singing Rejoice and Sing, which I've had trouble finding, but I think it may have been a fragment of Bach's motet Singet Dem Herrn Ein Neues Leid - hopefully Pellegrina (or Editio, the choirmaster) will correct me if I'm wrong.

Pellegrina welcomed us in from the cold and remarked that it was good to see St Gallicus full to bursting point on such a night. The "O" antiphons - explained by Revd Bosco Peters in his Liturgy blog - have begun, so for the carol service she chose the O Emmanuel:
O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, hope of the nations and their saviour: come and save us, O Lord our God.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
The first carol was Once in Royal David's City - here it is from Carols from King's, the annual Carol Concert from the Cambridge University college:

The first Lesson was Genesis 22:15-18, on God's promise to Abraham upon the latter's not holding back from being prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac:
the binding of IsaacThe angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.’
Our next carol was a new one for me - A Great and Mighty Wonder. I never heard this in Scotland; obviously some carols are famous the world over, but I wonder if others are favoured in some regions and unknown in others?

I've heard Isaiah described as "a poet of genius" by friends who were able to read Hebrew and, looking at the beauty of sections of the compilation in English, I can believe it. Ludus read the second Lesson, Isaiah 2,6,7 about the Prince of Peace to come:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
The choir sang Goldschmidt's A Tender Shoot, and here it is, again, by the choristers of King's College.

The following carol was Of the Father's Heart begotten. Here it is sung by senior students of a US school, but unfortunately I don't know which one:

Lesson 3 was read by Peripatetica, who helps with Pastoral Care, and is the passage which deals with what Christians call the Tree of Jesse, and contains the famous lines about the lion and the lamb lying together in peace:
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see, the Lion and the Lamb
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
The next carol was It came upon the midnight clear, sung here by Christian band Kutless:

The fourth lesson, dealing with the fruit of the Jesse Tree, was Luke 1:26-35,38, telling of the Annunciation. Not being sure how to depict an angel, in modern times - since 1977's Jesus of Nazareth, commissioned by Lew Grade to honour a promise made to his friend, Pope Paul VI - films have shown Mary responding to an agency we neither see nor hear, the only sign that something extraordinary's going on being a restlessness in the night outside.
after the Annunciation: what would you have done?
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
My favourite version of O Little Town of Bethlehem is by Boxcar Willie - really! - but I couldn't find it on YouTube; so here's Aled Jones of Walking in the Air fame singing it with Libera. The lines The hopes and fears of all these years/Are met in thee tonight still give me goosebumps.

Amicus, who coordinates efforts to raise funds for St Gallicus in spite of dungeon, fire and sword (as Terry Wogan would say), read the fifth lesson, Luke 2:1,3-7, the Nativity, the appearance in flesh of what "the hopes and fears of all the years" are about:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Now we had the choir again, with Rutter's Nativity Carol. Here it is performed by the Chancel Choir of the First Presbyterian Church of Conway, Arkansas.

This was followed by a worldwide favourite - Hark the Herald Angels Sing! Here's Nat King Cole:

Lesson number six was read by a young member of the congregation and was Luke 2:8-20, the angels appearing to the shepherds in a great host within a shining light and saying "do not be afraid", which the shepherds might have been forgiven for thinking was a somewhat incongruous statement.
the shepherds and the angelsAnd there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
There followed the choir again with Joubert's anthem, Torches.

Then another classic carol, While Shepherds watched, accompanied by the pictures from Christmas cards. While we were singing this, a collection was taking place. Please give to a cause this Christmas - to your church, or to the local soup kitchen, or else to a charity that you've seen on TV that has moved you. If you don't have the money to give, how about spending some time getting shopping for somebody who has difficulty getting out, say, or helping out at a local scheme that gives folk a first step onto a ladder that will see them climb out of a bad place?

The penultimate reading came from Famula, who read the story of the Wise Men in Matthew 2:1-12. I remember Rector Pellegrina delivering a sermon about the Magi last year, describing how while the shepherds were comfortable in their own skin, the oriental astrologers' need for attention and recognition may have sparked a wave of infanticide. Among the Christian communities within the pro-life community, the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28 is traditionally a time when we remember the victims of abortion.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had cwise men?alled together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:
" 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'"

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
The choir sang the anthem The Three Kings by Cornelius - here it's performed in St John's Cathedral in Portsmouth, the young man being accompanied by the Cantores Michaelis choir.

And the carol, As With Gladness, performed here by the Royal Choral Society in the Albert Hall, where Britain's Royal British Legion's Festival of Remembrance is held every year.

The last Lesson was read by Rector Pellegrina: the most powerful passage, I think, in the Christian Bible, detailing the mystery of the Incarnation in John 1:1-14. This is a passage Ive turned to many times in my life, most recently when I went to hospital to visit Professor Calculus of blessed memory and found an empty bed: I went to the hospital chapel, located a Gideon's Bible and sat and read the passage. It was the Good News translation, not my favourite, but it did the trick.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
Rector Pellegrina then gave a wonderful Address on the mystery of God's wiping the slate clean through Christ, which I think is something Calculus couldn't accept: not that Jesus came to redeem us, but that it is a mystery. The last carol was O Come, All ye Faithful. I hope you will indulge me in letting me post a video of the carol in the language in which I sung it in a distant boyhood, although none of us could hope to have touched the hem of Andrea Bocelli's ability:

We finished with the choir singing Bach's Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light, which is sung here by a choir in Tyler, Texas.

Pellegrina gave us a blessing, then made sure she was available to anybody who wanted to talk to her - aware, no doubt, that this can be a difficult time of year for a lot of people. She made sure that everybody left with something more than they'd come in with.

Have a merry Christmas.


  1. What a very thoughtful and festive post. I love going to the Christmas Eve carol service in Wicken where the congregation acts the nativity completely unrehearsed. They are given costumes when they arrive - usually just the younger members - and can choose between being a shepherd or king (we usually end up with six kings and two shepherds). The newest baby in the village and its parents have the star roles of baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. There is no shortage of pretty angels. In the past, animals have even been included as the play was centered around the belfry which was converted into a stable.

    Have a lovely Christmas, and thank you for your comments throughout the year.

  2. Thanks, Ellee! I hope you enjoy your Carol Service. Have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

  3. A beautiful post! Thank you for sharing. I will bringing the children around the computer to share the youtubes with them.

  4. Linda, thank you so much. This is what I intended, for it to be a virtual service. Knowing - personally - that this can be a difficult time - I hope that the rest of Advent is blessed for you, and that you have a holy Christmas. (If any of your children ever do projects about abroad in your home-school, this is a typical English service, copied - as far as the videos go - from the Order of Service.)

    God bless you.

  5. Have a blessed and holy Christmas, my friend. It's cold here! How about there?!

  6. Thanks, Linda. It's absolutely freezing here! We've been having snow and sleet during the day which has been turning to ice over the night, but we're starting to get rainfalls now, that seem to be slowly melting the ice. I don't mind a white Christmas, which the Met Office (our state weather forecasters) have just declared, but my ideal white Christmas consists of snow, not ice!

    I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas Day tomorrow: we've been to our midnight Service, but I think it's still Christmas Eve over there. And thank you for joining up as a follower!


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