Every year, our church has a special Sunday service in December called “Lessons and Carols.” Ever wondered why we have this in our church calendar or what is the meaning behind the service?
In 1880, Edward Benson, at that time Bishop of Truro in Cornwall but later Archbishop of Canterbury, created, formalised and performed the service of carols with Nine Lessons. The service took place at 10pm on Christmas Eve in a large wooden structure being used as a temporary cathedral as the main Truro Cathedral was being rebuilt. Over 400 people attended this first service. Since then, the service has subsequently been in continuous use (with modifications) in Truro since 1880. The original liturgy has since been adapted and used by other churches all over the world, occurring most often in Anglican churches. However, numerous Christian denominations have adopted this service, or a variation of this service, as part of their Christmas celebrations.
One of the most famous versions today is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, featuring carols sung by the famous Choir of King’s College, and broadcast live annually over BBC Radio (and all over the world) at 3pm (UK time) on Christmas Eve. The service was first performed at King’s College in 1918 as a way of the college celebrating the end of WWI. The new college dean, Eric Milner-White, who had been an Army Chaplain in WWI, wanted a different and more positive way of celebrating Christmas for the choir and people in the college.
A service of Nine Lessons and Carols typically has nine Bible readings (or lessons), that tell the Christmas story, with one or two carols between each lesson. The opening verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” is usually sung by a single boy chorister or by the whole choir. The service has a profound dignity and simplicity. Each lesson follows the same format: the passage of Scripture is read by a reader, followed by the singing of a carol reflecting on that passage of Scripture. The service traditionally involves nine readers, representing various age groups, societies, or roles within the church. When the service includes a sermon or meditation, it usually follows the ninth lesson, though some place it after the eighth. The service concludes with a prayer and a blessing. The recessional and postlude that follows often ends on a triumphant and joyful tone.
As we worship God in our Lessons and Carols service today, let us truly reflect on the Christmas story of salvation told in these moving passages of Scripture. God sent His Son into this world to live a sinless, perfect life, to pay the penalty for our sins, and to purchase a place for us in heaven, so that whoever believes, repents and calls on His name, the name of Jesus Christ, will be saved (Acts 4:12).