This service is modeled after the renowned “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” heard every Christmas Eve over BBC radio. It was first drawn up by Archbishop Benson when he was Bishop of Truro for use in that Cathedral. In 1918 it was simplified and modified for use in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England, by Eric Milner-White, who, at age thirty-four, had just become dean of King’s College.
I minister in a Southern California beach community where Christmas Eve services (rather than Christmas Day services) are the norm. But this service could also be adapted and used by congregations who celebrate Christ’s birth on Christmas morning. In addition, the use of forms of prayer and set responses as well as the centrality of the Word appeal to “liturgical” or “non-liturgical” churches alike.
Proclamation comes in the form of a narrative throughout the lessons. This festive setting of Word and song, attended each year by many unbelieving family members and friends of our parishioners, engages both the mind and heart with enough narrative to draw participants into the story of the birth of Jesus Christ of Nazareth: God’s Son, Israel’s Messiah, our Savior. We hear the Scriptures tell the entire history of salvation, beginning in the Garden, moving through the prophets, and culminating in the gospels. In response to the unfolding of this dramatic story, we sing some of the church’s greatest hymns as we celebrate God’s eternal plan, which is fulfilled in the incarnation of his Son.
Consider inviting various members of the congregation to participate in the readings. You’ll want strong dramatic readers to present the more challenging passages and the poems written by John Donne (1572–1631) that open the service.
We Prepare to Worship
Readings from John Donne’s Holy Sonnets
Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, Thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shut’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-beloved imprisonment.
There he hath made himself to his intent
Weak enough, now into our world to come.
But O! for thee, for Him, hath th’ inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from th’ orient,
Stars, and wise men will travel to prevent
The effects of Herod’s jealous general doom.
See’st thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eye, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.
We Enter into Worship
Call to Worship: Psalm 98:1-4
God’s Greeting: Revelation 1:4-5
Song: “O Sing a New Song to the Lord” Trinity Psalter
“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” Stuttgart: PsH 329, SFL 122, Hyfrydol: CH 244, PH 2, SWM 83, TH 196, WR 153
The Old Testament Prophecies of the Coming of Christ
We begin after the dawn of human history, in the Garden of Eden. There God made Adam; his wife, Eve; and all humanity in his image “that [they] might rightly know God [their] Creator, heartily love him, and live with him in eternal blessedness” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 6).
As imagebearers of God, we were made in a covenant relationship with God but broke that bond of fellowship when Adam and Eve sinned by eating of the forbidden tree. Thus, the LORD God came to judge Adam, Eve, and the serpent for what they had done.
Yet in the midst of sin, disobedience, and the pronouncement of a curse, we hear the first news of Christmas: from the woman would come one who would crush the serpent and the sin and death he brought upon the human race.
The First Lesson
Lesson: Genesis 3:8-15
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God!
[This response is repeated after every Old Testament reading.]
Carol: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” CH 277, PH 31/32, PsH 345, TH 203, WR 185 (st. 4 and 5 can be found at http://cyberhymnal.org/htm/h/h/a/hhangels.htm)
Come, Desire of nations, come,
fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power,
ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
formed in each believing heart.
The plot of Christmas is unfolded throughout the generations: the promised seed, beginning with Abel and continuing through Seth, was dramatically saved from the flood in Noah and multiplied in the families of Shem, one of Noah’s three children. God was then pleased to choose Abram, one of these descendants, to bring the promised seed of the woman. Abram’s blessed seed would bless not only Abram’s family for generations to come, but the families of all people on earth.
The Second Lesson
Lesson: Genesis 22:15-18
Carol: “Let the Earth Now Praise the Lord,” Lutheran Worship 33
“The God of Abraham Praise” PsH 621
After receiving God’s steadfast love for generation after generation, the people of God rebelled like their first father, Adam. Jacob’s sons sold their brother into slavery, yet the LORD used Joseph to preserve Israel from famine in Egypt. Two Israelites caused Moses to go into exile for forty years in Midian, yet he was the Lord’s anointed one who displayed signs and wonders and led the people out of Egypt.
Millions of Jews, stuck between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s chariots, forgot the LORD’s salvation, yet in power and grace God split the sea in two and caused them to pass through on dry ground while destroying Pharaoh’s armies in the sea.
The people complained about not having bread, water, or meat, yet the LORD sent them manna from heaven, water from a rock, and more quail than they could eat. The people built a golden calf to worship, yet the LORD forgave their sin. The spies did not believe they could overcome the inhabitants of the land, yet the LORD later led them, through Joshua, to destroy the enemies of God.
Generation after generation rebelled until the LORD allowed them to be enslaved again in a foreign land by their enemies, yet the LORD delivered them through judges.
In the seventh century B.C., the people broke their covenant with the LORD again. The ten northern tribes of Israel were sent into Assyria and the two southern tribes of Judah would be next by the Babylonians. Then the LORD promised disbelieving Ahaz that he would climactically save them again—this time by coming to his people.
The Third Lesson
Lesson: Isaiah 7:10-14
Carol: “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” CH 245, PH 9, PsH 328, SFL 123, SWM 81, TH 194, WR 154
Immanuel, God with us, was to be the name of the virgin’s Son. This surely would be the greatest and most mysterious sign and wonder God would do. What would Jesus’ birth mean to God’s people? What would he mean to God-fearers among the nations who dwelt in the darkness of ignorance, idolatry, and unbelief?
The Fourth Lesson
Lesson: Isaiah 9:2-7
Carol: “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” CH 251, PH 38, TH 200, WR 191
“The People Who in Darkness Walked” PsH 192
Eve’s offspring would be a King, and his kingdom would be one of peace, ending the serpent’s reign over the Lord’s people. Yet where was he to be born? Would it be in the palaces of royalty and aristocracy?
The Fifth Lesson
Lesson: Micah 5:2-5a
Carol: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” CH 250, PH 44, TH 201, WR 180
“Little Bethlehem of Judah” Psh 204
The New Testament Fulfillment of the Coming of Christ
Promises, promises, so many promises; yet where was this promise of God coming in the flesh? Where was this seed of the woman to crush the serpent? Where was Abraham’s offspring who would bless? Where was the virgin’s Son, the King upon David’s throne who was to reign forever? Where was this Lord, this shepherd of whom Israel sang?
You see, after the preaching of Isaiah and Micah, God’s people languished for more than seven hundred years without these prophecies coming to pass! Yet now the strife is ended! Now God is no longer silent! Why so downcast, O Israel of God? Lift up your hearts and heads and hear the long-expected words of fulfillment.
The Sixth Lesson
Lesson: Luke 1:26-38
The gospel of the Lord.
Praise be to you, O Christ!
[This response is repeated after every gospel lesson.]
Canticle: “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord”
“Song of Mary” PsH 212
In the providence of God, Caesar Augustus called for a taxation of the land in the year in which Mary was to give birth to the Son of God, Jesus Christ, our Lord. So everyone had to return to their hometowns. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. Listen to one commentator describing our next lesson:
Throughout the centuries God had so led the course of history that everything was now prepared for the coming of his Son. The preparatory Old Testament revelation had been completed long ago; the weary, longing spirit of [humanity] was in dire need of his coming; his forerunner, John, had already been born; the “fullness of time” had arrived. And at last, the promised Redeemer, whose coming had been looked forward to with so much heartfelt yearning, is born. In a few verses—written simply, in a matter-of-fact and natural way—Luke . . . relates the tremendous and all-important event. (Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, 1951)
The Seventh Lesson
Lesson: Luke 2:1-7
Carol: “What Child Is This” CH 281, PH 53, TH 213, WR 184
“Come and Stand Amazed, You People” PsH 338
After this stupendous wonder of God, we see the true nature of Christ’s kingdom revealed in those who first beheld him and in the humble surroundings of his birth. He was not adored by throngs of millions, thousands, or even hundreds, but by some shepherds who happened to be in an adjacent field. He was not first visited by the powerful, the influential, the important, but by the least of this world. And when the angel told them where to find this child, it was not on a throne or in a palace, but “enthroned” in a trough, wrapped in the swaddling cloths of an ordinary baby! Truly, he who was rich became poor for our sake, so that we by his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).
The Eighth Lesson
Lesson: Luke 2:8-16
Carol: “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” TH 211
“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” PsH 215
After Jesus was born, he was visited by Magi, who were princely men from the East. In Scripture, going east is “east of Eden,” away from the presence of God. Here these Magi are going from east to west as they approach the very Holy of Holies in the person of Jesus, in whom the “whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). The age-old strife between the two seeds, the woman and the serpent, Christ and Satan, the godly and the ungodly, is still active. Thus we see the reason Jesus came: to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).
Lesson: Matthew 2:1-12
Carol: “O Come, All Ye Faithful” CH 249, PH 41/42, PsH 340, SWM 102, TH 208, WR 182
What an amazing wonder God has done in sending his eternal Son to become human, yet remain God: the birth of God in the flesh. For here we see that the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the Son of the virgin, the Son given unto us, the one who was to be a ruler from Bethlehem, was in truth, God in the flesh. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail the Incarnate Deity!”
The Ninth Lesson
Lesson: John 1:1-14
Carol: “Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come” CH 270, PH 40, PsH 337, SFL 137, SWM 94, TH 195, WR 179
This “grace” that “came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17)—grace that forgives the sins of a misspent past, the struggles of the present, and the sins of the future—is offered to all who by faith unite themselves to the humiliation, lowliness, suffering, and shame of the One who came from heaven to earth, that we might rise from earth to heaven. Amen. Thanks be to God!
We Depart Worship
Prayer: from the Liturgy of Heidelberg, 1563
[Note: If the antiquated language of this prayer would be a distraction in your congregation, you’ll want to rewrite it in your own words.]
Eternal and Almighty God, we give you most hearty thanks, that in your great love, you graciously pitied us, who were doomed to eternal death for our sins, and ordained your only begotten Son, before the foundation of the world was laid, to be our Mediator, Atonement, and Savior; that he was promised unto our first parents in paradise, after their deplorable fall, and at the appointed time was sent into the world, that he assumed our flesh and blood, became our Brother, and in all things like unto, sin excepted. We praise you, that by his death he destroyed him who had the power of death, the Devil, and delivered us, who must otherwise have spent our whole life in bondage to the fear of death, from the kingdom of Satan and darkness, and translated us into the kingdom of light and eternal happiness.
We heartily beseech you to fill us with your grace, that we may rightly know this your love and mercy, and Jesus Christ your Son, whom you have made unto us for wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, and so love and honor him, as wholly to surrender ourselves up unto him, to confide in him, and esteem everything in the world as dross and dung, for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. And may we cling unto this Savior with true faith, who forgives all our sins, and heals all our diseases, that we may rejoice in all the tribulations of this life, and sing with the heavenly host: “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, and good-will towards men,” and finally attain unto the end of our faith, even the salvation of our souls.
We entreat you also for all the governments of the world, for [names]. Grant unto our rulers grace and peace, that they govern those placed under them in your fear, and with your approbation, that righteousness may be promoted, and iniquity be checked and punished, that we may fulfill our days in quietness and peace, as becomes Christians.
Confirm all weak and disconsolate spirits, and send down upon us your peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who has taught us to pray: Our Father . . .
Canticle: “Now May Your Servant, Lord” PsH 216