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Nine Lessons and Carols for Christmastide

Every year more North American congregations are discovering the beauty of a traditional English service called, very simply, "Nine Lessons and Carols." The structure of the service is as simple as the title: nine passages of Scripture are followed by nine carols. But the content of those readings and the traditional way of conducting the service have become very meaningful to many congregations.

Some of those traditions and the basic outline of the serivce are offered below. The editors of REFORMED WORSHIP have gleaned these suggestions from bulletins submitted by several congregations and schools and from talking with various choir directors who have served as planners and organizers for the service.

The service outline provided on these pages is taken from the back of Carolsfor Choirs, volume 1, published by Oxford University Press. This volume provides not only the complete lessons– and–carols service but also fifty carols beautifully arranged for choir and congregation.

Although the cost of the book would use up much of most choir budgets, the number of songs and their timeless character guarantee that the book will be used for years. The service has been recorded (on the Argo label) more than once by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, England, for whom the service of nine lessons and carols has become an annual Christmas Eve tradition.

Another form of the service, containing additional prayers, is published in Prayers for the Christian Year, 2nd edition, Church of Scotland, produced in 1960 by Oxford University Press.

The Lessons

The service has a profound dignity and simplicity. Each lesson follows the same format: a reader goes to the podium and introduces the Scripture lesson, reads the passage, and concludes by saying, "Thanks be to God." Then the congregation and/or choir sing a carol reflecting on that passage of Scripture.

Readers The service traditionally involves nine readers, representing various age groups, societies, or roles within the church. The first reader is usually a child, the last the minister. The other seven often include young people, teachers, society members, deacons, and elders. When conducted by a school, different grade levels or student, faculty, and staff members participate as readers.

The readers should be given their script at least a week in advance and should attend a rehearsal. This means all readers: adults as well as children need coaching to speak clearly, slowly, and distinctly.

The reading should not be dramatic, but interpretive with attention to the meaning. Placement of boxes for children to stand on, adjustment of microphones, walking up and down— all these matters should be rehearsed. During the service nothing should detract from the text and its meaning.

Most churches now use the RSV or NIV translations of the Bible, but to maintain the tradition of this service the King James Version is often used. The beautiful language of this old English translation heightens the simple dignity of this traditional service.

The old tradition of standing for gospel readings is often followed in this service by having the congregation stand for the ninth lesson.

Music Since so much music from this season is simple and well known, the congregation should sing a good deal. In fact, congregations without choirs could sing all the songs. For some carols, consider having the congregation and choir alternate stanzas, with the choir perhaps singing a descant on the final stanza. For others, you may want to alternate stanzas between men and women. Even if your church has no choir, having sopranos sing and/or treble instruments play some descants will add a festive flavor.

Some churches sing more than one song after some of the readings. However, especially if the service has no sermon, one or, at most, two songs chosen to reflect on the meaning of one Scripture passage help to retain liturgical balance and unity; adding too many songs can tilt the service toward a concert. The choral suggestions on pages 28 and 29 were prepared by Howard Slenk, Director of Music at Wood–lawn CRC, Grand Rapids, and chairman of the music department at Calvin College. Use those that seem most appropriate to your service. As you read the Scripture lessons, other carols for the congregation will come to mind.

Have the choir sing any songs that might be unfamiliar to the congregation. This service is not the place to ask the congregation to stumble through new songs.

The choir or choirs should be in one place throughout the service; marching up or down will detract from worship.

The service has a profound dignity and simplicity.

The Beginning of the Service

After a quiet meditative prelude, the service may begin with a processional. "Once in Royal David’s City" is a favorite which some churches use every year. Often a child or someone with a light childlike soprano voice sings the first stanza from the back. Then the choir begins pro–

cessing on stanza 2. The congregation joins in for the last few stanzas, and the organ pulls out all the stops for a glorious climax. In some churches just the choir processes; the readers sit near the front with their families. In other churches the processional includes all the participants; the readers also wear robes and sit together.

Those in the processional, usually in pairs, should walk slowly, not trying to march in step. They should concentrate on keeping an even distance from those ahead of them and on listening to the other choir members while singing. The processional must be rehearsed so that it does not draw attention to the act of processing but rather sets the tone for a service of worship. Sometimes the procession is led by one or two candle–bearers who light candles at the front of the church.

Churches using an Advent wreath may wish to separate the processional from the candle lighting. After the processional the candles are lit and the choir sings a carol that contains references to light. However, this is not part of the traditional service.

The congregation remains standing for the bidding prayer, a prayer in which the congegation is asked (bidden) to pray for. . . . A list follows, with brief pauses after each petition. The congregation then gathers all these concerns and offers them up to God in the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

A bidding carol—which is something like a call to worship—may then follow, in which the choir addresses the congregation. After the bidding carol, the congregation is seated and the lessons begin.

The End of the Service

When the service includes a sermon or meditation, it usually follows the ninth lesson, though some place it after the eighth.

If an offering is part of the service, it should be taken after the ninth lesson. The offertory music—either another carol or instrumental music—should keep in mind the wonder and mystery of the passage from John 1.

Some congregations follow the older custom of receiving offerings at the door as people leave.

The service concludes with a prayer and a blessing. In England, all would kneel for the prayer. If your congregation has never knelt in prayer, this service would be an appropriate context in which to consider doing so. If the congregation does not kneel, it should stand.

All those who participated in the processional leave in a recessional. A favorite hymn for the recessional is "O Come, All Ye Faithful," as arranged in Carols for Choirs, volume 1. The choir members do not actually leave the sanctuary but, rather, gather in the back to add their voices on the descant for the final stanza.

The postlude that follows should be more triumphant and joyful than the prelude.

In planning a service of the nine lessons and carols, no congregation should feel bound to follow all the suggestions listed above. Of greater importance is maintaining the simplicity and dignity needed to convey the story of salvation told in these moving passages of Scripture.

One final word about bulletins. Words to all the songs are best printed in the bulletin. It is especially helpful for the congregation to be able to follow the texts sung by the choir. Directions for standing also should be clearly marked on the bulletin.

THE SERVICE OF NINE LESSONS AND CAROLS

Prelude:

*The Processional Hymn: Once in Royal David’s City

*The Bidding Prayer

The congregation, standing, shall be bidden to prayer in these words:

Beloved in Christ, at this Christmastide let it be our care and delight to hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the babe lying in a manger.

Therefore let us read and mark in holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious redemption brought us by this holy Child.

But first, let us pray for the needs of the whole world; for peace on earth and goodwill among all his people; for unity and brotherhood within the church he came to build, and especially in this, our own community.

And because this would rejoice his heart, let us remember, in his name, the poor and helpless, the cold, the hungry, and the oppressed; the sick and them that mourn, the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the little children; all those who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.

Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are one forevermore.

These prayers and praises let us humbly offer up to the throne of heaven, in the words which Christ himself hath taught us:

Our Father, which art in heaven . . .



Bidding Carol:

Up, Good Christian Folk, and Listen
Good Christian Friends, Rejoice


The Nine Lessons



First Lesson:

God announces in the Garden of Eden that the seed the of woman shall bruise the serpent’s head. Genesis 3:8—15.

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus
The Truth from Above
Adam Lay Y–Bounden





Second Lesson:

God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall the nations of the earth be blessed. Genesis 22:15–18.

Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth
O Come, O Come, Immanuel




Third Lesson:

Christ’s birth and kingdom are foretold by Isaiah. Isaiah 9:2,6–7.

1 Saw Three Ships
The Holly and the Ivy




Fourth Lesson:

The peace that Christ will bring is foreshown. Isaiah 11:1–9.

Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming
Of the Father’s Love Begotten
There Was a Rosebud Bloomed in the Snow





Alternative Fourth Lesson:

The prophet Micah foretells the glory of little Bethlehem. Micah 5:2–4.

O Little Town of Bethlehem
Bethlehem, of Noblest Cities
How Far Is It to Bethlehem?
O Little Town of Bethlehem






Fifth Lesson:

The angel Gabriel salutes the virgin Mary. Luke 1:26–38.

The Song of Mary (any setting)
A Virgin Most Pure
Blessed Be That Maid Mary
Gabriel’s Message
The Sans Day Carol







Sixth Lesson:

Matthew tells of the birth of Jesus. Matthew 1:18–23.

God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen
Ding Dong! Merrily on High
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night





Seventh Lesson:

The shepherds go to the manger. Luke 2:8–16.

While Shepherds Watched
Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
Sussex Carol
On Christmas Night
See, Amid the Winter’s Snow





All My Heart This Night Rejoices
Come, Leave Your Sheep
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing





Eighth Lesson:

The wise men are led by the star to Jesus. Matthew 2:1–11

As With Gladness Men of Old
The Infant King
Unto Us Is Born a Son





Ninth Lesson:

John unfolds the great mystery of the incarnation. John 1:1–14

In the Bleak Mid–Winter
O Come, All Ye Faithful




The Sermon:



The Offering:



The Prayer and Blessing:

O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only Son, Jesus Christ: Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may, with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

May he who by his incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly, fill you with the sweetness of inward peace and goodwill; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.



The Recessional Hymn:

The Postlude:

See page 30 for additional information on suggested carols.


THE BELLS OF CHRISTMAS
Lessons–and–Carols Service

Christ Community Reformed Church of Clifton Park, New York, has been making the service of lessons and carols a yearly tradition. Like most other congregations who celebrate Christmas through this service, Christ Community has added its own "touches" to the liturgy. Robert De–Young, pastor of the church, describes part of a special service of lessons and carols, held late on Christmas Eve.

One year "the bells of Christmas" seemed ever present in our carol selections. Since we had no tower bell, an old ship’s bell and a former schoolhouse bell were lugged into the church. The people were invited to bring small bells, sleigh bells, chords of bells.

As the people arrived, the bells were muffled and quiet and were kept that way throughout most of the service. But after all the readings and the sermon, the choir sang "A Christmas Mosaic" by Charles Lamb. Even as the final notes of the anthem were being sung, one of the unseen bells began to ring, then the other of another pitch joined in, and finally the people added the sound of their individual bells.

To end this acclamation of praise, the organ and trumpets began the introduction to "Joy to the World," the final carol of the service. As the people left the church, they carried their bells unmuffled, ringing in Christmas Day.


Carol: Up, Good Christian Folk and Listen Good Christian Friends, Rejoice
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: by G. R. Woodward
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella
Level: medium




Carol: Come Thou Long Expected Jesus The Truth from Above
Publisher: CfC, II
Arranged: Ralph Vaughan Williams
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella
Level: easy





Carol: Adam Lay Y–Bounden
Publisher: CfC, II
Arranged: Boris Ord
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella
Level: medium





Carol: 0 Come, O Come, Imanuel*
Publisher: Oxford
Arranged: John Rutter
Arranged for: SATB, unison, with baritone solo and organ
Level: easy





Carol: Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth*
Publisher: Concordia
Arranged: Raymond Haan
Arranged for: Unison, with organ and opt. handbells
Level: easy





Carol: Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth*
Publisher: CfC, II
Arranged: David Willcocks
Arranged for: SATB, unison, with soprano descant and organ
Level: easy





Carol: I Saw Three Ships
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: David Willcocks
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella
Level: medium





Carol: The Holly and the Ivy
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: Reginald Jacques
Arranged for: SSATB, a cappella
Level: medium





Carol: Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: Michael Praetorius, G. Schirmer (Lawson–Gould)
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella
Level: easy





Carol: Of the Father’s Love Begotten
Publisher: Hope Pub. Co.
Arranged: Paul Wohlgemuth
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella
Level: easy





Carol : There Was a Rosebud Bloomed in the Snow
Publisher: Novello and Co.
Arranged: Martin Shaw
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella
Level: medium





Carol: O Little Town of Bethlehem
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: Ralph Vaughan Williams
Arranged for: SATB with descant and organ
Level: easy





Carol: Bethlehem, of Noblest Cities*
Publisher: CfC, III
Arranged: David Willcocks
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella and with organ
Level: easy





Carol: How Far Is It to Bethlehem?
Publisher: CfC, II
Arranged: David Willcocks
Arranged for: SAA, a cappella
Level: medium





Carol: O Little Town of Bethlehem
Publisher: CfC, III
Arranged: Walford Davies
Arranged for: Unison with organ
Level: easy





Carol: Any setting of the Song of Mary A Virgin Most Pure
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: Charles Wood
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella
Level: medium





Carol: Blessed Be That Maid Mary
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: David Willcocks
Arranged for: For double chorus
Level: medium





Carol: Gabriel’s Message
Publisher: CfC, II
Arranged: David Willcocks
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella
Level: medium/diff.





Carol: The Sans Day Carol
Publisher: CfC, II
Arranged: John Rutter
Arranged for: SATB with organ
Level: medium





Carol: God Rest You Merry, Gentleman*
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: David Willcocks
Arranged for: SATB with organ
Level: medium





Carol: Ding Dong! Merrily on High
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: Charles Wood
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella
Level: medium





Carol: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night* Sussex Carol
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: from Estee Psalter
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella
Level: easy





Carol: While Shepherds Watched Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: David Willcocks
Arranged for: SATB with organ
Level: medium





Carol: On Christmas Night
Publisher: Stainer and Bell
Arranged: Ralph Vaughan Williams
Arranged for: Unison with organ; SATB, a cappella
Level: easy





Carol: See, Amid the Winter’s Snow*
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: David Willcocks
Arranged for: SAATTB and unison with organ
Level: medium





Carol: All My Heart This Night Rejoices
Publisher: CFC, II
Arranged: J. G. Ebeling
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella
Level: easy





Carol: Come, Leave Your Sheep
Publisher: CfC, II
Arranged: John Rutter
Arranged for: Unison SATB with organ
Level: easy





Carol: Hark! the Herald Angels Sing*
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: David Willcocks
Arranged for: SATB, a capella, and unison with organ and descant
Level: easy





Carol: As With Gladness Men of Old*
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: David Willcocks
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella, and unison with SATB and organ
Level: easy





Carol: The Infant King
Publisher: CfC, II
Arranged: David Willcocks
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella
Level: medium





Carol: Unto Us Is Born a Son*
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: David Willcocks
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella, and unison with descant and organ
Level: easy





Carol: In the Bleak Mid–Winter
Publisher: Galaxy
Arranged: Harold Dorke
Arranged for: SATB Soprano and tenor solo with organ
Level: medium





Carol: O Come, All Ye Faithful*
Publisher: CfC, I
Arranged: David Willcocks
Arranged for: SATB, a cappella, and unison with organ accomp. and descant
Level: easy





Carol: In the Bleak Mid–Winter
Publisher: CfC, III
Arranged: Gustav Hoist
Arranged for: SATB, acappella
Level: easy





Abbreviation: CfC stands for Carols for Choirs, edited by David Willcocks, et al. and published in four volumes by Oxford University Press.


*Carols marked with an asterisk are arranged with stanzas in unison for congregational participation, or can be easily so arranged.