"Have you done this service before?" someone asked me at coffee hour on Sunday. We were talking about our upcoming Service of Lessons and Carols for Advent on Sunday, December 11, 2016 at 5:30 p.m..
Of course I had, hadn't I?
But really the answer is no, I haven't. Not exactly.
So I explained that while I had done similar services, I have never actually done the specific liturgy that we will use this Advent.
But I couldn't give her the longer answer. So, here it is.
I'm sort of obsessed with Carol Services (can you tell?). Why? Well, if it came right down to it I'd have to say that the innovation of Lessons and Carols is the apotheosis of the "low church" tradition.
“Lessons and Carols is the apotheosis of the ‘low church’ tradition”
Let's define the terms. Here "Lesson" means a short reading of scripture, though "Short" is relative. A "Carol" can be many things, but historically these are strophic songs (often with a refrain) of a popular or "dance" character on subjects related to Christmas (or Easter, or some other sesason). We will consider the development of carols in relation to these services in part 2.
There's something about the juxtaposition of the familiar and the new that speaks to our spiritual selves. This is especially true if the tradition truly takes hold and you get to hear the same lessons year after year the music offers new commentary, new insight alongside the biblical text. The carols and hymns themselves serve a homiletical function and reinforce each other. Without Sermon or Eucharist, the congregation is allowed to hear in word and music the message of the season and respond with vigorous hymn singing.
I suppose my very first memory of a Carol Service for Advent would have been an order from the Episcopal Church's official Book of Occasional Services (BOS).
There are plenty of lessons to choose from. But if you follow that order literally you have to include the lesson from Gen. 3 about Adam and Eve. And isn't that same lesson typically used at a Christmas Lessons and Carols service? Kind of an odd choice, but okay.
And the Bidding Prayer in that book is ... well ... it's really lousy. It's just the Christmas Bidding Prayer slightly warmed over. It really misses the mark and doesn't speak to Advent at all.
Don't get me wrong, I think I was involved in some lovely services that used the BOS scheme, but I wanted to look elsewhere.
Anyone who has spent any time planning carols for Christmas has stumbled upon the Advent Lessons and Carols information in the back of Carols for Choirs 2 (CfC2) from Oxford University Press.
I've always assumed that the order in CfC2 to be somehow connected to the service in use at King's College, Cambridge. After all, one of the editors of CfC2 was David Willcocks. But information about any of the "Procession for Advent" services, past or present, in that place have not been forthcoming online. (Add to the list of things to research when I take a sabbatical to Cambridge in 2022).
The Bidding Prayer of the CfC2 Advent Carol Service, at least, is substantially better than the one found in BOS. It actually speaks to Advent itself, and is not just a warmed-over Christmas prayer.
Beloved in Christ, as we await the great festival of Christmas let us prepare ourselves so that we may be shown its true meaning. Let us hear, in lessons from Holy Scripture, how the prophets of Israel foretold that God would visit and redeem his waiting people. Let us rejoice, in our carols and hymns, that the good purpose of God is being mightily fulfilled. Let us celebrate the promise that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, will bring all people and all things into the glory of God's eternal kingdom. The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.
But first, let us pray for the world which God so loves, for those who have not heard the good news of God, or who do not believe it; for those who walk in darkness and the shadow of death; and for the Church in this place and everywhere, that it may be freed from all evil and fear, and may in pure joy lift up the light and love of God. These prayers and praises let us humbly offer to God, in the words which Christ himself taught us:
And at this point I thought that I had found a Bidding Prayer and lessons that worked well for the season of Advent.
And then, stupidly, I got in the car at the end of Thanksgiving weekend (the trip from Richmond took about four hours) and attended the Procession with Advent Lessons and Carols at St. Paul's, K Street in Washington, D.C.
This service was transformative. It was exquisite. And it didn't come from BOS or CfC2. It spoke authentically to the season and left nothing out. Furthermore, it incorporated the idea of a Procession (note that the service at King's to this day is called a "Procession for Advent").
Video: The national Episcopal Church very wisely decided to record a video of this service last year which provides a very good documentation of that service, but, like any recording of liturgy, it is truly no substitute for being present and taking part. If you ever have the opportunity to attend, I strongly encourage you to do so!
So I had to go back to the drawing board. I went through every single resource I could find and lay everything out on the table at once. Every possible lesson was examined and considered. Different structures were weighed.
Ultimately I thought that the notion of a Procession was too compelling to discard. If the Lessons and Carols is a "low church" idea (reading, music, repeat) adding the teleology of a liturgical Procession into the proceedings seemed to incorporate some "high church" gravitas without otherwise compromising what is compelling about Lessons and Carols.
It was about this same time that I attended the American Sarum conference in Bronxville, N.Y. which helped clarify my thinking about liturgical processions. Naturally, Salisbury Cathedral figured prominently into the conversation, and that place has their own wonderful Advent Carol Service.
For the new "Advent Procession" service at St. Paul's, Richmond the following year, I wrote the following:
For hundreds of years liturgical processions have marked boundaries – the physical boundaries of the parish, the church – and in so doing invoke the very boundaries between heaven and earth. Such a procession is particularly resonant in the Advent season when we look expectantly toward the celebration of God’s crossing of this very boundary through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
For the pattern of the service I tried to read the Greek Revival architecture of St. Paul's, Richmond and determine what route in the building would best tell the Advent story. The service at the English Gothic St. Paul's, K Street with it's divided choir stalls simply wouldn't work in the spacious, 800-seat church in Richmond, with it's Gallery Organ.
Here was the order of service at St. Paul's, Richmond in 2011:
I liked this service, and I think it was the right fit for St. Paul's at the right time. St. Paul's seemed to be a place on the cusp. It had been steadily moving away from it's "low church" heritage and more in line with the liturgical practice put forth in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Eucharistic vestments had appeared a decade or so before, Morning Prayer had greatly lessened in prominence, and I understand at the present time incense and a sung Sursum Corda (both rarities in the Diocese of Virginia!) are regular features.
For the next few years the St. Paul's Choir and I were able to explore this order a bit and make it our own.
Now I find myself in a different parish, and I feel the need to "crack this nut" once again. For reasons of space and churchmanship I do not think that another "Procession" is the right answer. So it was back to the drawing board – again.
Continued in "Carol Service - exploring the Advent, part 2"
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