The Anglican tradition has inherited many ancient pieces of liturgy, so it may be a bit surprising to learn that the Festival/Service of Nine Lessons and Carols (traditionally held on or near Christmas Eve) is a fairly recent invention, celebrating its one-hundredth birthday only last year in 2018. It was constructed out of the grief and horror of the First World War, which had ended only 6 weeks before Christmas Eve in 1918.
Here’s an example of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College on Christmas Eve in 1992:
Who created the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols?
The author of Nine Lessons and Carols was The Rev. Eric Milner-White, a graduate of King’s College who was appointed chaplain at the college in 1912, four years after his ordination as a priest.
When the war broke out in 1914, he volunteered as a military chaplain, and witnessed the horrors of trench warfare on the Western front. “Most of life is at night,” he wrote in a letter back home,
“and the nights are filled with prolonged terror—a horrid, weird, furtive existence. . . . Battle is indescribable, unimaginable. A continuous firework of light balls goes up from the German trenches. But most awesome is the noise. We feel powerless against those splitting cracks and roars, and dream of the metal tearing its way into the bodies of poor men.”
Decorated for courage under fire in combat, he was released after what he called “a battle of special horror” in early 1918 and returned to King’s College, where he was appointed Dean.
Why was the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols created?
After the end of the war on November 11, Milner-White set out to create a special Christmastide service “as a gift to the city of Cambridge” that would serve two purposes.
First, he wanted to grieve the loss of young men from the city, and especially from his own college.
Twenty-three percent of the members of King’s College had died during the war, including Milner-White’s roommate. Today in the chapel of King’s College is a list of the names of the dead on an engraved plaque; a much later dean of King’s College noted that this list was assembled long after the first Lessons and Carols service. This is because on Christmas Eve, 1918, it was not even known exactly who among the members was alive or dead.
Second, Milner-White wanted to reform liturgical practices so that the simple beauty of Christian worship would shine through and attract those who had lost their faith in the horrors of the war, whether serving in it or watching it take place.
There is intellectual depth to the service. In Milner-White’s own words, “the main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God” as viewed “through the windows and the words of the Bible.” Yet he aimed at simplicity rather than complex explication of God’s purposes in human history. Rather than a lecture, he designed the service to focus on “colour, warmth, and delight.”
Drawing upon a lessons and carols tradition that stretched at least back to Edward White Benson at Truro Cathedral in Cornwall in 1880, Milner-White established the tradition of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College on Christmas Eve in 1918.
What are the “lessons” in Nine Lessons and Carols?
The specific carols sung during the service always change from year to year. Although the service at King’s College always begins with “Once in Royal David’s City” and ends with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
First Lesson from Genesis 3: 8–15; 17–19
God tells sinful Adam that he has lost the life of Paradise and that his seed will bruise the serpent’s head.
Second Lesson from Genesis 22: 15–18
God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.
Third Lesson from Isaiah 9: 2; 6–7
The prophet foretells the coming of the Saviour.
Fourth Lesson from Isaiah 11: 1–3a; 4a; 6–9
The peace that Christ will bring is foreshown.
Fifth Lesson from the Gospel of Luke 1: 26–35; 38
The angel Gabriel salutes the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Sixth Lesson from Luke 2: 1; 3–7
St Luke tells of the birth of Jesus.
Seventh Lesson from Luke 2: 8–16
The shepherds go to the manger.
Eighth Lesson from the Gospel of Matthew 2: 1–12
The wise men are led by the star to Jesus.
Ninth Lesson from the Gospel of John 1: 1–14
St John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation.
What is Milner-White’s other legacy?
Milner-White devoted the remainder of his life to the theme that the simple beauty of Christianity offered hope to an increasingly secular culture without hope. He sparked a new interest in stained glass windows as a means of expressing simple Christian truth in beautiful form. He wrote several simple prayers, one of which made its way into the 2019 Book of Common Prayer as the first Prayer for Mission in Evening Prayer:
O God and Father of all, whom the whole heavens adore: Let the whole earth also worship you, all nations obey you, all tongues confess and bless you, and men, women and children everywhere love you and serve you in peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
As you listen and worship during Lessons and Carols, occasionally contemplate that this simple service offers an expression of hope that despite the mess that humans have made of our world, God has a plan of redemption for it.
Want to learn more about Nine Lessons and Carols?
- John Yates III gave Anglican Pastor readers Four Meditations for the Nine Lessons and Carols in 2016.
- For more reading pleasure, an interview with William Edwards, author of The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (Rizzoli, 2004), can be found here.
- You can listen to each year’s Christmas Eve performance of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Chapel here.