‘Lessons and Carols’ for this Advent

At King’s College Chapel, UK, Christmas Eve services have been held without interruption for more than 100 years and aired annually since 1928. Photo: Flcherb/Wikipedia
Published December 16, 2020

A special gift of the Anglican tradition to the Christian world is the annual festival of Scripture lessons and Christmas carols, both for Advent and Christmas, which originated in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, UK. This year, due to the pandemic, participation in these services will be different for many. But in a way, not for me.

At King’s, Christmas Eve services have been held without interruption for more than 100 years and aired annually since 1928. The broadcasts continued through World War II, even though the location of services was kept secret for fear of German bombing.

The broadcast Advent festival event was created after the one for Christmas Eve, but both services follow the same basic style: readings and prayers for the season accompanied by carols, many of English heritage. Later, German and other traditions were included as well.

These broadcasts draw many thousands of followers from around the world and from beyond the Anglican Communion itself. As a young Lutheran, I was strangely drawn by the messages of anticipation and celebration of both Christ’s coming and birth and had little trouble appreciating the uniqueness of terms from imperial England at the time.

My CD versions of these rites have been played hundreds of times—the most listened-to of my extensive Christmas music collection.

This year, these joint festivals will be broadcast as usual—with one significant difference. There will be no physical congregations, and the choristers will be guided by government health regulations.

The King’s College choir, established in the 15th century, is made up of 16 boys between 9 and 13 who board at the King’s College school, with 14 male undergraduates known as choral scholars. All choristers prepare for the role of major soloist, but that name is kept secret—even from the lead boy singer—until just before the service begins.

This year, the adrenaline charge of an audience will be missing, but the focus will be on musicianship and excellence, as always.

My annual ritual for engaging these services has changed little in forty years. I follow the readings of the Scripture texts and selected carols. While my ritual remains the same, the meaning and message continues to be fresh and new for me.

Many congregations across Canada will be using various versions of these original services—and the Anglican Church of Canada is offering a national, live-streamed broadcast on Dec. 18—but it is also important that we gain some perspective of the origins.

This set of festivals is one of the many benefits of ecumenical and inter-church sharing. I can’t think of a better example of meaning that drew me to consider the spirit of the Anglican Church. I am also pleased to see the influence of my own tradition of origin (i.e. J.S. Bach) influencing these services.

I am grateful that—even in a year of COVID-19—the blessings of anticipation and celebration of Christ’s coming remain the same.

Details used in this column were gathered from: The Guardian, November 29th, 2020


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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