Origin of the Advent Lessons and Carols Service

christmas eve festal eucharist 10:00 pmAdvent — the word means coming or arrival — is a season which has two meanings for Christians. It is a time to prepare for the anniversary of the Jesus Christ’s first coming-his birth to the Blessed Virgin Mary at Bethlehem two thousand years ago-and culminates in our celebration of Christmas, the twelve-day feast that lasts from December 25 to January 6. The other theme of Advent is the Second Coming of our Lord at the end of time, when he will come in great power and glory to judge both the living and the dead. The double emphasis on both the first and the second advents of Christ gives to the season its unique mixture of devotional joy: joy in the redemption that has come to us in the Incarnation, and awe before the Judgment that yet awaits us. To the spiritually discerning believer, both of these tremendous and signal events of past and future are experienced as eternally present realities.

The Procession with Carols on Advent Sunday originated at King’s College, Cambridge, England in 1934, composed by Dean Eric Milner-White (who had also been responsible nine years earlier for the more widely known Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols for Christmas Eve). In his Preface to the Advent Sunday service, Dean Milner-White wrote: ‘In the old English liturgies, the Advent Offices made a preparation for the coming of our Lord to this earth far more vivid and eager than those of our present [1662] Prayer Book. So an Advent Carol Service, if without precedent, is not without suitability, if it helps to express “the desire of all nations and ages.”‘ The purpose of the service is ‘not to celebrate Christmas, but to expect it.’

The progression of the choir, starting in darkness at the back of the church and ending in brilliant light at the High Altar, symbolizes the movement from the prophetic expectation of Messiah to the very brink of messianic fulfillment, both in the birth of the Son of God and his final coming in judgment and glory. We are bidden to awake and to watch, to prepare and to expect, for our God will come and save us, and deliver us from the bondage of sin and death, and bring us into the radiance of his kingdom of glory.

The St. Thomas’ Parish Choir will be directed by Dr. Giles Brightwell, and the organ will be played by Professor Neil Weston (Director of Choral Activities, George Washington University, Washington DC).

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