Nine Lessons and Carols

It may not quite be up to the musical standard of the choristers at King’s College, Cambridge, but the annual carol service at St. Cuthbert’s this evening at 6pm is still a delightful highlight of this festive season.

The church is bedecked with candles and greenery throughout (it’s Carols by Candlelight, after all!) and the readings from the lectern are always clear and nicely rehearsed. Even though some of us have been singing carols nearly every day this week (kicking off with the Carols in the Square on Tuesday, the Hexham Orpheus Concert at St. Mary’s Catholic church on Wednesday, the Burnlaw carol evening up in the ‘beautiful room’ on Thursday), this service is special because of the hushed ambience. It really wouldn’t feel like Christmas without this celebration.

I seem to be able to manage a croak or two these days, on a handful of notes, so I’ll be enjoying the evening in the pews, rather than from the choir loft. I imagine it’s always an intriguing task for the Rev’d Jon Russell, finding the readers. I’ve been asked once or twice, and I seem to recall some thunderous words from the Old Testament about judgement and possibly prophecy. But the range of readers often seems to encompass the entire community, ages, genders, professions. I love that inclusivity as we gather together to attend to the Christmas story.

That story, after all, is one of the longest lived ‘stories’ we humans actually have; perhaps in the western world, only the stories of the Greek and Roman gods and their interactions with humans, or those related to the Jewish tribes of Abraham in the Old Testament (and the parallel tracks celebrated in Islamic cultures), are longer-lived. From the East, of course, stories of Hindu deities or Siddhartha the Buddha are long extant. While the stories from the ‘First Nations’ peoples in North America and Australia are still maintained, I suppose many other stories, like from the pharaonic tradition, or the Mayan culture-religion in South America, have disappeared with the passing of time. Still in our culture, the Christmas story feels new and vibrant with every annual repetition.

I know I still experience a thrill on the final reading of the Gospel of St. John, as everyone stands together: ‘and the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.’ Surely something to conjure with, a mantra for every writer. And the poetry of the King James version never fails to capture one’s attention, though the more modern translations are that much more accessible, of course.

‘Once in Royal David’s City’ often starts the service (and how well we remember our young son on the first verse, some 25 years ago) and after moving through the litany of carols and readings, usually the evening is rounded out with a robust ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ with a rousing descant on the last verse and chorus.

And then, feeling particularly moved and warmed by the spirit amongst us, we might just move on to liquid spirits in the pubs, and the warmth of good company and Christmas goodwill. Only three more sleeps ’til Christmas Day!

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