Lessons and Carols… and Poetry?

While it may well be true of ministers in many settings, I found that as a solo pastor just starting out, the Advent and Christmas seasons were just the slightest bit daunting, particularly in a small church. Raised in larger congregations, I have long felt that church preparation for and celebration of these seasons should be fulsome: with special worship services (the Moravian love feast, and the Longest Night service); caroling to the homebound followed by parties at the parsonage; and other opportunities for fellowship and service (including the Hanging of the Greens and the making of Christmas ornaments with kids).

Add to those elevated expectations the regular responsibilities of planning worship and preaching each Sunday and on Christmas Eve/Day, and you have a recipe for an extremely stressful holiday season (and zero shopping time). One obvious solution would be to pare down those expectations. Another is to look for worship services that are rich and meaningful and don’t require a sermon.

These are the pragmatic reasons why I offer this Service of Lessons and Carols. I tended to do it on the fourth Sunday of Advent – with the movement of the service, beginning with readings from the prophets, through Mary’s expectation and Joseph’s trepidation, and on to the manger scene, it still felt preparatory… but offered an excuse to sing carols before the actual day. It could, though, work just as well on Christmas Eve or, on the first Sunday of Christmastide (when you may not have recovered sufficiently to preach).

Traditional services of Lessons and Carols – my denomination’s Book of Worship has one – are lovely and wonderful, but raise theological questions worth considering anew every year. A service that begins with the reading of “the Fall” in Genesis can imply an atonement theology I wouldn’t preach the rest of the year. Readings from Isaiah and other prophets are interpreted by some congregations as actually prophesying the coming of Jesus in a way that can, in the wrong hands, start sounding mighty super-secessionist. In a desire to present all the familiar aspects of the Christmas story, services might feature readings from all four Gospels (so we can get Gabriel talking to Mary and Joseph, get Wise Men and Shepherds). This isn’t a crime of course, but it can contribute (especially among the twice-a-year attendees) to the somewhat inaccurate notion that the Bible is one coherent, chronological narrative.

All of those issues may still be at play in the service format I use, but because the “Lessons” are most often poems, written by Christians but clearly outside the canon, they carry less authority to do harm. My hope in planning each year is to find pieces that speak the truth about God in Christ; still it is clear that the words are those of L’Engle or Longfellow. The authors testify to the Word of God, but they won’t be confused with the words of God. This isn’t just a defensive decision, however. It’s a way of modeling that incarnational theology at the heart of the Christmas story… without, as a young clergy woman or new mother, having to imagine too intimately how Mary might have been feeling in a sermon each year.

Now, the brass tacks: I organize the readings around some theme, if only to help me make selections or readings and hymns: “Christmas through the ages” or “the whole world sends back the song” (referencing It Came Upon a Midnight Clear). Depending on the level of participation you can garner from your congregation, you can have soloists or other musical groups interspersed with the carols (a favorite was the year I forced a friend to sing Dave Matthews’ A Christmas Song; a perennial joy is inviting wee Christians to play whatever holiday selections they’ve learned on their viola, piano, or what have you. This is the only occasion on which I will regularly sanction the playing of Up on the Housetop during worship). Everyone has their favorite carols; I will not impose mine. I will say, though, that the verses of People, Look East build for a nice Advent Candle liturgy, and that the Taize song Prepare the Way of the Lord makes a really lovely introit that can easily be taught to a congregation.

Within an hour long worship service, not including Holy Communion, there is usually time for fourteen to eighteen readings. Take your time finding readers. They will need to interpret these poems. Give them their readings at least a week in advance (I once had an elderly man refuse at the last minute to read a C.S. Lewis poem comparing the speaker to various animals at the nativity. He objected to the line "Among the asses stubborn I as they"). Each reader can do several poems; rotate through the service, make sure to take a few minutes before the service to review “blocking.”

I have to confess, the idea of this service was never mine. I grew up in churches that did this service each year – churches pastored by my dad. He initially found and selected some of the poems that have become my favorites. Since I have been in ministry, though, each year has become an opportunity to pass along newly discovered poems and ways of organizing the service. We have used Howard Thurman’s “The work of Christmas” as both Call to Worship and Benediction. Linda Felver’s “Let me not keep Christmas” (“Christmas kept is liable to mold.”) is often the last poem.

Here, then, are some of our collective (collected) favorites: “BC : AD”, U.A. Fanthorpe; “Carol”, Thomas Merton; “Christmas Bells”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; “Huron Carol”, Jean de Brebeuf; “A Christmas Carol”, G.K. Chesterton; “Let the Stable Still Astonish,” Leslie Leyland Fields; “O Simplicitas,” Madeleine L’Engle; “Shall I tell you who will come”, Traditional Spanish Carol; “The Nativity,” C.S. Lewis; “If we had been there,” Martin Luther; “The Mother’s Song,” Inuit, translated by Peter Freuchen; “I have lighted the candles, Mary”, Kenneth Patchen; and “It is Not Over,” Ann Weems.

Just writing their titles, the lines of these poems come unbidden to mind, and I feel, in the middle of November, on a stressful evening, ready for worship, ready for Christmas. This is, finally, why I love this service; in the busiest season of my work year, it allows me to worship. I am moved and convicted – particularly by that Ann Weems one. I always use it as the benediction. "It is not over, this birthing/there are always new skies into which God can throw stars…"

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6 replies
  1. Katy Hyman
    Katy Hyman says:

    As a hospital chaplain, I have never had the chance to preach for an entire Advent season before. This year, however, I have the chance to lead worship every Sunday in Advent for a small church searching for an interim. Thank you for these ideas–I love the poems and I love the idea of a Service of Lessons and Carols without the implications of the traditional readings.

  2. Sandhya
    Sandhya says:

    So grateful for these ideas. I never let an Advent go by without using “Journey of the Magi” by TS Eliot, mostly because I (and it turns out the folks in my small struggling congregation) know that world-weary feeling even in the midst of miracle: ‘A cold coming we had of it,
    Just the worst time of the year
    For a journey, and such a journey:
    The ways deep and the weather sharp,
    The very dead of winter.’

  3. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    Bless you for sharing these great ideas! Some are familiar, some unfamiliar — and I will be looking them up to use in our day-after-Christmas lessons and carols service. I had already planned for one, because God knows I won’t have a new sermon on Sunday after three in Advent and two on Christmas eve (Friday Night)!

  4. ann
    ann says:

    this is so thoughtful. i need to reflect more and consider being less focused on cranking worship out; i can get so, so task-oriented. i’m seeking out these poems for myself this year and saving this article for next year’s service.

  5. Heidi Haverkamp
    Heidi Haverkamp says:

    Lovely! Thanks for this, Bromleigh. It’s hard in my Episcopal context to squeeze in both scripture, poetry AND Eucharist, but these would be wonderful inspirations for sermons and 1-3 could probably be interspersed with scripture at our Lessons and Carols.


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