I recently participated in the Festival of Lessons and Carols at my parish, St. Francis of Assisi (SFA) in West Des Moines, Iowa. While Lessons and Carols is a rather new tradition here, it originated in 1918 at King’s College of the University of Cambridge in England as a thanksgiving service after the close of World War I. The festival was first broadcast by BBC Radio in 1928, and except for 1930, has been broadcast every Christmas Eve since, propelling its popularity far beyond Cambridge.
A traditional Festival of Lessons and Carols is arranged with nine Scripture passages (the lessons) that recount the full Christmas story, beginning with the Fall of Adam in Genesis and ending with the mystery of the Incarnation from the Gospel of Saint John. Lessons are followed by a song or hymn (the carols) to further reflect on the Scripture passage. The congregation is typically invited to join the choir during many of the traditional hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Silent Night,” and “Joy to the World.” During a recent conversation with our parish priest, he mentioned that many public school students enrolled in the religious education program do not know the lyrics to these traditional Christmas carols. This is not surprising given most public schools have removed these songs entirely, and it saddens me that a generation of children may never be exposed to this rich music.
For the Festival of Lessons and Carols, I sang the Magnificat, a part of the Annunciation story. I selected an arrangement titled “My Soul Rejoices” written by Catholic singer/songwriter Jackie Francois. I find her version to be quite prayerful, elegant, simple, and profoundly moving…just like Mary. Today I received the following message from a friend:
I just wanted to thank you for sharing your incredible talent with SFA last night. The tears just began to flow when you started singing. When we got home my nine-year-old was singing your song and said, “Mom, I bet that is exactly how Mary felt when she saw her son for the first time.” God is great when he works through our children.
I include this note not to boast (that song is so lovely that many vocalists would generate the same response), rather to showcase what can happen when children are allowed to experience these rich, teachable moments—just like happend with my friend when she brought her children to the Lessons and Carols concert. I bet those emotions and image of Mary and the Annunciation will always be close to her son’s heart.
As we near the end of Advent and approach the beginning of Christmas, we enter a time in our church calendar prime for teachable moments. Consider beginning a new family tradition by organizing your own Festival of Lessons and Carols in the comfort of your living room—all you really need is a Bible, a songbook (borrow one from church if necessary) or some Christmas CDs, a lessons and carols template, and last but not least, an openness to allow God to work through your children. I just might be surprised by what my two-year old will teach me when we initiate the first ever Schmidt Family Lessons and Carols later this week!