The first known example of a Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, in something like the format that has become popular today, dates to 1880, when such a service was held at the cathedral in Truro, in Cornwall, England, on Christmas Eve. Services of lessons and carols had been held elsewhere, but the then-Bishop of Truro formalized a pattern of scripture readings and carols that would prove popular for years to come.
It was thirty-eight years later, though, that the service began to take off in popularity when it was adapted for use at King’s College, Cambridge, by its Dean Eric Milner, who felt that worship in the college, and perhaps more generally, needed revitalizing.
Thirty-eight years later, of course, was December 1918.
The Great War had ended little more than a month before. Milner had himself served as a chaplain through January of that year, and knew well the horrors that not only he, but many who were entrusted to his spiritual care, had witnessed in the four years before. Indeed, Milner was no doubt mindful how many of the young men who had been part of the college four years before had been killed in the war, or wounded, or knew well someone who had been killed. Most likely, no one before whom Milner presided in that first Lessons and Carols at King’s had escaped being affected by the war somehow.
To say that worship, in the face of such horror, needed “revitalizing” was a dramatic understatement. How could one simply go on as before, in unthinking routine and idle songs about Heaven, in the face of four years of unremitting Hell?
For Milner the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols provided an answer, one that has always been useful throughout the church’s history; when all else fails, go back and tell the story. Starting from the Genesis account of human sin and fallenness, the Lessons unfold the story of God’s relentless working in human history for the redemption of us all, tracing the work of God through God’s promises to Abraham and the words of the prophets, finally culminating in the unlikely and world-changing birth of a child in an out-of-the-way corner of the Roman Empire.
You can hear these concerns in the Bidding Prayer that has become part of the tradition of the service. Worship leads us to lift up in prayer “the needs of the whole world,” not to ignore them or dismiss them as meaningless to us. We may not be fresh from the most destructive war humanity had yet known, but war still rages in our world, visiting fresh atrocities upon children of God for the whole world to see. Perhaps we, too, need to hear the story again.
Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmastide our care and delight to hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.
Therefore let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child.
But first, let us pray for the needs of the whole world; for peace on earth and goodwill among all his people; for unity and brotherhood within the Church he came to build, and especially in this city of Gainesville and the church worldwide.
And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us remember, in his name, the poor and helpless, the cold, the hungry, and the oppressed; the sick and them that mourn, the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the little children; all those who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.
Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one.
Let us worship God.