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

Volume 12, No. 7  (July 2017)

(original cover artwork by Emily Ozier for our 2010 Festival of Lessons & Carols)




Obviously the theme is the birth of Christ! But often we have looked at the Christmas story from varying angles, with an overarching sub-theme giving direction and focus to the individual lessons and to the homily. Here are some examples from services we have done in the recent past:


His Glory Foreshadowed (Genesis 3:8-15)
His Glory Foretold (Isaiah 7:14; 9:6)
His Glory Foreseen (Isaiah 60:1-3)
His Glory Incarnated (Luke 2:1-7)
His Glory Heralded (Like 2:8-12)
His Glory Celebrated (Luke 2:13-14)
His Glory Witnessed (Luke 2:15-20)
His Glory Adored (Matthew 2:1-2,9b-11a)
His Glory Veiled (2 Corinthians 8:9; 9:15)
His Glory Revealed (John 1:10-14)
His Glory Eternal (Hebrews 1:1-6)


The Darkness (Genesis 3:8-15)
The Promise of the Light (Isaiah 11:1-3a)
The Anticipation of the Light (Isaiah 60:1; 9:2,6)
The Bearer of the Light (Luke 1:39-41a,46-50)
The Advent of the Light (Luke 2:1-7)
The Celebration of the Light (Luke 2:13-14)
The Wonder of the Light (Luke 2:15-20)
The Homage to the Light (Matthew 2:1-2,10-11)
The Glory and Grace of the Light (John 1:14-16)
The Light of the World (Hebrews 1:5,7-8,6)


The Wonder of Promise (Genesis 3:8-15)
The Wonder of Incarnation (Isaiah 7:14)
The Wonder of Hope (Isaiah 9:2,6-7)
The Wonder of His Birth (Luke 2:1-7)
The Wonder of the Shepherds (Luke 2:8-12)
The Wonder of the Angelic Throng (Luke 2:13-14)
The Wonder of Divine Humility (Luke 2:15-20)
The Wonder of the Divine Gift (1 John 1:14,11-13)
The Wonder of Divine Love (1 John  3:1; John 3: 16)
The Wonder of Divine Sacrifice (1 John 4:9-10)
The Wonder of His Future Reign (Hebrews 1:5-8)


The Gift of Mercy (Genesis 3:8-15)
The Gift of Promise (Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7)
The Gift of Hope (Isaiah 11:1-3a)
The Gift of Service (Luke 1:26-27;30-35,38)
The Gift of Joy (Luke 2:1-7)
The Gift of Good News (Luke 2:8-12)
The Gift of Glory (Luke 2:13-14)
The Gift of Peace (2:15-20)
The Gift of Worship (John 1:1-4,14)
The Gift of Life (Hebrews 2:14-17)
The Gift of Gifts (Hebrews 1:1-4,6)


Many churches use just a single reader for all the lessons, often the pastor. But we have found that a Lessons & Carols service gives the opportunity to involve a number of people from the congregation besides just the musical ones. So we use a different reader for each lesson.

For the past several years, in the first of our two identical morning services we use readers each of whom was born in another country. This is one way to honor the diversity in our midst and to proclaim that Christ came into the world to save people from every tribe, tongue and nation. One year we had each read the lesson in his or her native language; but that proved to be hard for most of the congregation to follow and really enter in. So now they all read in English; yet the array of different accents still gives the service a beautiful sense of diversity. (Each year also during the second service we host an International Brunch; internationals are invited to attend the first service, then attend this low-key outreach event during the second.)

In the second service we then use readers spanning all the age groups in the church, from children through senior adults. (We don’t have enough internationals to staff a second service of readers anyway!) This too is a unifying approach, and gives a group of men, women, youth and children an active role to play in worship which they might otherwise never have. Usually we have the youngest reader read the birth story itself, Luke 2:1-7
(making sure he or she is coached ahead of time on how to pronounce “Quirinius”!).


a. Response to Each Lesson

The “carols” (be they for congregation, choir, soloist, or whatever) will normally correspond thematically with the reading with which it is paired. In this way, there is an immediate musical response to the truth expressed in each lesson.

By its very nature, the Lessons and Carols format is a vivid embodiment of the Revelation-Response paradigm that is characteristic of all true worship. (See Worship Notes 1.5)

b. Diversity of Style

One of the beauties of a Lessons and Carols service (unlike most prepackaged Christmas “cantatas”) is that the segmented structure lends itself to the juxtaposition of a rich variety of styles of music: classical to contemporary, Celtic to Creole, plainsong to gospel. The diversity can be quite invigorating, being expressive of some of the many ways the birth of Christ can and has been celebrated in song.

It is an opportunity to work in some global songs as well. There are plenty of Christmas resources from other countries available. One year our choir presented a medley of carols from seven different countries, each in its own original language! (Russian, German, French, Spanish, Polish, etc.) Learning the transliterated texts was pretty challenging (and evinced not a few good-natured grumbles from the choir!), but it ended up being an effective and enjoyable endeavor.

The original Festival calls for the Processional to always be “Once in Royal David’s City” (with a child or adult soprano singing the first verse a cappella); but there is no reason why this first slot cannot be filled with any number of festive opening anthems.

c. Variety of Forces

The structure of the service also allows for a variety of different musical forces as well: choir, soloists, ensembles, children’s choir, men and ladies of the choir, orchestral numbers. Allowance should definitely be made for as much congregational participation as possible: people of course love to sing the traditional carols of Christmas; and they can also take part in carol medleys, as well as some familiar contemporary Christmas songs.

One year we had two ballet dancers do a tasteful and beautiful interpretive dance to the choir’s “Climb to the Top of the Highest Mountain.” It is my experience that you can get away with some things in a special Christmas service that might not go over so well any other time of the year!!


Our pastor takes about five minutes, close to the end of the service, to bring to a focus our theme and to present the gospel in a gentle and winsome way. In a sense the entire service is the message, and the pastor draws the application and invites a response.

Normally the homily will be followed with one or two more musical numbers, often preceded by one last Scripture lesson. We end with a big celebrative carol with the congregation taking part; a few times we have concluded with the “Hallelujah Chorus,” with the congregation singing along on that too.

 *  *  *  *  *

Of course the wondrous happenings of the Christmas story, and its profound implications for the world, never grow old. A Festival of Lessons and Carols format is a rich way to celebrate the old, old story in ever new and fresh ways.

Scroll to Top