Thinking Ahead: A Christmas Festival of Lessons & Carols (part 1 of 2)

Volume 12, No. 6  (June 2017)

Those of us involved in church music ministry know all to be well that it is high time that we were about making plans for our 2018 Christmas services. The publishers know that too: they have already been dumping new issues on us for a couple of months now. My now-grown children are grateful that they no longer have to be subjected to my Christmas demo CDs on the car stereo during June and July! A little bit slower pace (maybe) during the summer months can give a little breathing room for thinking head, before the fall crashes down over our heads and sends us hurtling at breakneck pace through the end of the year. Christmas will arrive all too soon! Moving out of the summer with a significant portion of our Christmas planning already done will certainly will reduce our stress level as we pick up steam in August and September.

In that spirit, I would like to share some ideas about the Festival of Lessons & Carols that our church does each year, along with many other churches. This year will be the our 29th consecutive year to hold such a Festival, and it is the true highlight of the year for many in our church family (as well as its largest attendance of the year). Whether you already do something similar now, or perhaps have never tried it, I hope the following give you some possibilities to think about.

You can read about the history of the event at King’s College, Cambridge in the U.K. HERE. The practice has been adopted and tweaked by many different traditions, for example HERE.



1. Its structure.

The structure of the service itself perfectly reflects the Revelation/Response paradigm of all true worship: God first speaks to us through His Word, and we respond with our hymns, songs, carols and prayers.

2. Its catechetical nature.

The readings and responsive musical numbers walk us through the history of salvation in a vivid, memorable way, progressing from the Fall of man through Old Testament’s promised redemption to the advent of Christ.

3. Its participatory nature.

The structure allows for the inclusion of a wide representation of the congregation as readers, singers and players (and also as congregational singers).

4. Its message.

The entire service preaches the gospel the message: a message of wonder, joy and hope.

5. Its beauty and power.

It is a service of worship, not just a concert. (In fact, we do it in two services on the morning of the second Sunday in December each year.) The Word of God and its message is central, and allows for the worship response of the people after each lesson. The beloved music of Christmas is enjoyed in the context of the proclamation of the Scriptures, which gives the music added wonder and impact.




The traditional service (used at King’s College and elsewhere) follows a standard set of readings:


While these are all powerful readings, there is no inherent need to limit oneself to only these. We vary the readings somewhat (though many of the above still have a regular place, such as the account of the fall in Genesis 3 and the birth narrative in Luke 2), pulling in some other relevant passages:

Psalm 24:7-10 (“the King of glory”)

Isaiah 7:14 (the virgin birth, Emmanuel)

Isaiah 11:1-3a (the Branch)

Isaiah 40:9 (“Behold your God!”)

Isaiah 60:1-3 (“Arise, shine, for your Light has come”)

Micah 5:2, 4-5a (Bethlehem; “He shall be their peace”)

Matthew 2:12, 9b-11a (the Magi)

2 Corinthians 8:9; 9:15 (“though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor”)

Galatians 4:4 (“in the fullness of time”)

Titus 2:11; 3:5 (“the grace of God has appeared”)

Hebrews 1:1-6 or 1:5-8; or 1-3a followed by 1:3b-6 (the superiority of the Son)

Hebrews 2:14-17 or 2:9,14-15 (He became flesh to die for us)

Hebrews 12:1-2 (“looking to Jesus”)

1 Peter 1:8-9 (“though you have not seen Him, you love Him”)

1 John 3:1a; 4:9-11 (the love of God for us)

Obviously the Lessons are Scripture lessons, but we have even used for one of the later readings this selection from The Valley of Vision:

O source of all good,
What shall I render to you for the gift of gifts,
your own dear Son?

Herein is wonder of wonders:
He came below to raise me above,
was born like me that I might become like Him.

Herein is love;
when I cannot rise to Him he draws near on wings of grace,
to raise me to Himself.

Herein is power;
when Deity and humanity were infinitely apart,
He united them in indissoluble unity,
the uncreate and the created.

Herein is wisdom;
when I was undone, with no will to return to Him,
and no intellect to devise recovery,
He came, God-incarnate, to save me to the uttermost,
as Man to die my death,
to shed satisfying blood on my behalf,
to work out a perfect righteousness for me!

And once we even included a powerful passage from a Christmas sermon by Spurgeon.

CONTINUED NEXT MONTH: “The Readers” “The Carols” “The Homily”

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