Through the clear wintry sunshine the bells this morning rang from the gray church tower amid the leafless elms, and up the walk the villagers trooped in their best dresses and their best faces—the latter a little reddened by the sharp wind: mere redness in the middle-aged; in the maids, wonderful bloom to the eyes of their lovers—and took their places decently in the ancient pews.  The clerk read the beautiful prayers of our Church, which seem more beautiful at Christmas than at any other period.  For that very feeling which breaks down at this time the barriers which custom, birth, or wealth have erected between man and man, strikes down the barrier of time which intervenes between the worshipper of today and the great body of worshippers who are at rest in their graves.  On such a day as this, hearing these prayers, we feel a kinship with the devout generations who heard them long ago.  The devout lips of the Christian dead murmured the responses which we now utter; along this road of prayer did their thoughts of our innumerable dead, our brothers and sisters in faith and hope, approach the Maker even as ours at present approach Him.

Alexander Smith, Christmas 1862 

It is these very sentiments that have led us–following a positive yearning for tradition and beauty in worship–to partake of the Advent services this Christmas season at a catherdral downtown known for its Anglican-styled worship.  The best service of all was this past Sunday’s Evensong, the famous Christmas Lessons and Carols beloved by Anglophiles the world over.

Every Christmas Eve we tune in to the live BBC broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge.  The Bidding Prayer, which remains unchanged from the service’s inception in 1918, always touches me to the point of tears.  But when the officiant reaches the line, Let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, my eyes invariably well up and spill over.  I think of my own loved ones who now reside among that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh.  And I muse in wonder on the generations of my Christian forbears who received with gladness the same Gospel which has redeemed both my soul and theirs.  I always seem to see in that brief moment a passing flash of the greatness and vastness of God’s kingdom.  And so it was with sincere delight in being able to participate in such a service for ourselves—minus the gorgeous British accents—that we sat last Sunday afternoon in the hushed cathedral, poring over the program and waiting with bated breath for that first airy solo to fill the vaulted spaces above with the tender strains of Once in Royal David’s City

As the service progressed, each lesson built upon the one before, unfolding the Gospel story from Genesis through to the great and mysterious testimony to the Incarnation in the first chapter of John; each reading ended with a ceremonious Thanks be to God which I echoed fervently in my own heart.  The carols interspersed leant a pageantry to the beloved tale, from ancient Orthodox hymns to the friendly familiarity of Hark the Herald Angels Sing.  I saw birds hastening with the glad news of Christ’s birth; a crude stable filled with wondering beasts and lit by the light of a single star; a winter’s morning blossoming like the spring.   

The service ended quietly, with a silent Retiring Procession and a soft organ voluntary, and we left the cathedral in whispers.  It was so worshipful in its sheer beauty and reverence, and refreshed our hearts and minds in a profound way to keep this yearly remembrance of our Lord’s birth.  I’m quite sure that yet another tradition has been instituted in our household.

For an offical history of the Nine Lessons and Carols service, see the King’s College website here.

And be sure to check your local public radio listing for the live broadcast this Christmas Eve.  You can hear a recording of the famous opening hymn here.  (Click in Once in  Royal David’s City.)