This coming Sunday evening, December 4, Christ Church will hold its annual Advent Service of Lessons and Carols. For many, this is a favorite service of the Church year. It is a time when our expectant waiting for the celebration of our Lord’s Incarnation is inspired by readings from Holy Scripture and the singing of hymns old and new, familiar and unfamiliar. But where does this tradition come from? And why do we do it at Christ Church?
From its early beginnings, Christ Church has embraced its identity as a church in a university town, serving both “town and gown,” our Waco neighbors and our friends at Baylor University, McLennan Community College, and Texas State Technical College. To faithfully inhabit this context, we’ve often turned to the historic Anglican communities at Cambridge and Oxford as examples. One resource we and many other Anglican parishes around the world have appropriated from them is the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, created in 1918 by The Rev. Eric Milner-White, Chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge.
While there were earlier variations of the service in England, its modern form was created by Milner-White in the aftermath of the First World War as a contemplative liturgy for a community rife with grief and loss. Nearly a quarter of the young men at the college had been lost in the war, and both the university and the town of Cambridge were approaching Christmas in deep mourning. Milner-White composed the service “as a gift to the city of Cambridge,” he said, in order to give comfort and inspire hope. The service combines readings from the Old and New Testaments that anticipate and pronounce the coming of the Incarnate Lord with hymns that proclaim humanity’s need and eager anticipation for his salvation. In the wake of war’s horrors, the beauty of the liturgy brought the comfort and hope of God’s coming to dwell with us amidst the suffering and darkness of the world.
Lessons and Carols was soon replicated in other universities, like Oxford, and parishes throughout the Anglican Communion. Today, the Choir of King’s College performs the service on Christmas Eve, which is broadcasted on BBC Radio and listened to by millions across the globe. Milner-White’s “gift to the city of Cambridge” has become a gift to the whole Church and the whole world.
At Christ Church, we offer this Service of Lessons and Carols in Advent, before students return home for the holidays, as faculty and students alike struggle to complete a busy term, and as we all prepare to enter a season marked by both joy and sorrow. Like those participants in the first service at Cambridge, some of us grieve loss during this season. Others of us joyfully receive this season as a time of celebration and cheer. Most of us probably experience a bit of both. But we all need a proclamation of hope. We need to hear declared those great words of Isaiah:
For unto us a child is born,
unto us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.