Advent Lessons & Carols

It is a yearly tradition for many of us to listen to the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast every Christmas Eve from King’s College in Cambridge. The first time King’s College held this service was in 1918, and it has been broadcast since 1928. Our Advent Procession of Lessons and Carols, which we will celebrate this Sunday at 5:00 p.m., is a modification of that service for use during the Advent season. The choir will process and sing from various places throughout the church, symbolizing our journey through Advent, from darkness into light. As we move through the service, the congregation will join in the singing of carols and the choir will offer anthems both familiar and newly composed. 

The first of these anthems, Elizabeth Poston’s beautiful Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, is often sung at carol services following the retelling of the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Renaissance composer William Byrd’s joyous Laetentur Caeli follows the lesson from Jeremiah, a promise of a new covenant with God’s people. 

An anonymous text provides the inspiration for Canadian composer Mark Sirett’s intimate anthem, Thou Shalt Know Him When He Comes. In this poem, we are told not to look for the coming of Christ through any worldly fanfare, but through the change, his coming makes within our hearts. Equally intimate is Kim Andre Arnesen’s setting of William Blake’s The Lamb, a text that is very familiar to Lessons and Carols services, but here is newly heard through Arnesen’s beautiful, close-set harmonies. British composer Bob Chilcott’s The Rose in the Middle of Winter answers the final lesson with a dancing celebration of the coming of Christ. 

At the end of the service, St. Peter’s Choir will sing Jonathan Dove’s extraordinary anthem, Seek Him that Maketh the Seven Stars. Dove takes the text of this piece from the Book of Amos and Psalm 139. For most of the duration of the piece, the composer focuses on the first line of text: “Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion,” with the words “Seek him” repeated again and again in increasing intensity. A central dance section builds to a final, emotional cry of the full text:

Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the shadow of death into morning. Alleluia, yea, the darkness shineth as the day, the night is light about me.

As we continue our journey not only through this season of Advent but also through this long season of challenges and uncertainty, the messages of hope and light that Advent Lessons and Carols bring seem all the more important.

But first, let us pray for the world that God so loves… 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 of the love of God.” (from the Bidding Prayer for Lessons and Carols).

Elizabeth Lenti, Director of Music & Organist

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