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Expecting Not Celebrating Christmas

An Introduction to Advent Lessons & Carols

By Nathan Costa, Assistant Director of Music & Liturgist

Advent—the word means coming or arrival—is a season that has two meanings for Christians. It is a time to prepare for the anniversary of Jesus Christ’s first coming—his birth to the 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 the season its unique mixture of devotional joy: joy in the redemption that has come in the Incarnation, and awe before the Judgment that yet awaits.

The Advent Service of Lessons and Carols originated at King’s College, Cambridge, England, in 1934, adapted by Dean Eric Milner-White from ancient liturgical sources and an earlier service devised by Edward F. Benson, Bishop of Truro. In 1880 Bishop Benson had instituted a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols for use on Christmas Eve in the wooden shed that served as his cathedral. This Christmas service had also been adapted by Dean Milner-White and is now known throughout the world through the Christmas Eve broadcast sung by King’s College Choir. In his Preface to the Advent 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 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 service of Lessons and Carols, whether for Advent or in its more familiar Christmas version, is based on the medieval Office of Vespers, in which readings from Scripture alternate with hymns and anthems appropriate to the liturgical season, chanted by the choir. The Advent themes of the Coming of Christ, both as the Holy Child of Bethlehem and as the Savior of the world coming at the end of time, are reflected in the lessons, carols, and anthems.

Don’t miss Advent Lessons & Carols online this year on Sunday, November 29 at 5 PM on cccathome.org.