AfterWords is a series of community-contributed reflections intended to further the conversations that begin during Parish sermons.
Note: The Parish will celebrate the Nine Lessons and Carols liturgy on Christmas Eve at 5:30 p.m. Consider this a Lessons-and-Carols primer, of sorts.
On the fourth Sunday of Advent, our family makes a trek to Buckhead for Nine Lessons and Carols at the Cathedral of St. Philip. It’s Episcopal; it’s high church; it’s glorious. (Added perk: One can wear a hat and not look totally crackers. Mine was a little burgundy number with a felt flower and netting.)
Every year, I try not to cry when the service begins with a single voice from the back.
Once in royal David’s city
stood a lowly cattle shed.
The choir processes, singing the second verse.
He came down to earth from heaven
who is God and Lord of all.
As the organ and the congregation joins on the third verse and the nave swells with sound, I can feel my daughters looking at me, hoping Mom won’t melt into active sobbing. But I was raised Episcopalian, and we know how to stifle emotions during a service. Just in case, I clutch my late grandmother’s poinsettias-printed handkerchief, but I always manage—more or less—to keep it together.
Until this past Sunday evening. After a cancelled in-person Nine Lessons and Carols in 2020 and almost two years of—well, you know—polite tears politely dabbed with said handkerchief turned into ugly crying.
Following the opening hymn was the Bidding Prayer, and things didn’t get much better. From the prayer:
Let us remember all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no one can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.
Those “upon another shore and in a greater light”… Do you see what I was up against? I thought of my father-in-law, my grandparents, others I’ve lost, will lose. The handkerchief came in quite handy.
In 1918, when the attendees of the first Nine Lessons and Carols, held at King’s College, Cambridge, heard these words, they must have recalled those lost in the Great War. The service has been broadcast annually since 1928, even during the Second World War, when the old glass had been removed from the chapel and the name of King’s was kept mum for security reasons. (To hear this year’s service at King’s, tune in to Atlanta’s 90.1 FM at 10:00 a.m. on December 24.)
Eric Milner-White had just been appointed Dean of King’s at age 34 when he drew up Nine Lessons and Carols, adapted from a service held in a wooden shed in 1880. Milner-White’s experience as an army chaplain convinced him that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship. The essence of the service hinges on the lessons, which never change, not the music, which does, except for the opening “Once in Royal David’s City.” Milner-White said, “The main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God… seen through the windows and words of the Bible.” The first lesson, read by a choir boy, tells of Adam and Eve; the congregation stands as the dean reads the ninth, from John 1… “In the beginning was the Word…”
I looked around St. Philip’s on Sunday, thinking there’s something achingly beautiful about collective worship, particularly during an era of adversity. Our heartache is collective, but our joy is magnified by the miracle of Emmanuel and multiplied by the very fact that we stand and sit and raise our voices together.
Okay, maybe I’m not embarrassed. Considering all that, how can anyone—even a former Episcopalian in a burgundy hat with a felt flower and netting—be expected to maintain a stiff upper lip?
“Bright sadness” sweeps over me at various moments during Advent, though usually in private. In the Orthodox church, Lent is traditionally referred to as a season of bright sadness, pointing to a mingling of joy and grief. But bright sadness applies to Advent as well—for my money, the weeks leading up to Christmas embody the oxymorons of glad sorrow, the now and the not yet.
This season has been sweet, friends, and I bid you a merry Christmas. On Friday, savor every moment of The Parish’s Nine Lessons and Carols, a service that’s compelling in a cathedral or the Kalen Center.
During our first Christmas as a married couple, Luke and I packed friends into our tiny apartment for a homespun Nine Lessons and Carols—so long ago, I can’t remember who brought and played a guitar. We squeezed onto the sofa, stood in the kitchen, sat on the floor. It was overcrowded; it was overheated; it was glorious.
Wherever you are this Christmas, may the story of God’s loving purposes fill your homes—and your hearts.
About that opening hymn… I’m keen on the choral version, but if something more contemporary is to your liking, Sufjan Stevens has a whimsical, lovely rendition.
Once in Royal David’s City
Once in royal David’s city
stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby
in a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.
He came down to earth from heaven,
who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall;
with the poor, the scorned, the lowly,
lived on earth our Savior holy.
We, like Mary, rest confounded
that a stable should display
heaven’s Word, the world’s creator,
cradled there on Christmas Day,
yet this child, our Lord and brother,
brought us love for one another.
For he is our lifelong pattern,
daily, when on earth he grew,
he was tempted, scorned, rejected,
tears and smiles like us he knew.
Thus he feels for all our sadness,
And he shares in all our gladness.
And our eyes at last shall see him,
through his own redeeming love;
for that child who seemed so helpless
is our Lord in heaven above;
and he leads his children on
to the place where he is gone.
Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing round,
we shall see him; but in heaven,
where his saints his throne surround;
Christ revealed to faithful eye,
set at God’s right hand on high.