Sunday, December 30, 2012

Christmas Lessons & Music

 SPOILER ALERT: This post is grumpier than usual. Read at your own risk.

Service Format

The 10:45 AM service for the First Sunday after Christmas was billed as “First Sunday after Christmas: Lessons & Music.” In his “Music Notes” in the bulletin, Doug Starr wrote about the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that is celebrated at King’s [“Kings” in Doug’s writeup] College, Cambridge every year in the late afternoon on Christmas Eve. I don’t know why we don’t call our service “Lessons & Carols,” but the fact that we don’t is a tip-off that the St. Paul’s version, despite many commonalities, is not quite what is done in England.

On the afternoon of December 16, I actually attended a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Highland Park. Except for the fact that the choir included females, the service was about as close to the King’s College version as one could expect to experience in the U.S. We didn’t pray for the Queen, of course, but the church was lit by candlelight, the first verse of “Once in royal David’s city” was sung a cappella by a boy soprano, and the lessons were read by members of the parish and the community.  (Readers included the rector, the bishop, a Roman Catholic deacon, and a state senator.) The “carols” were mostly arrangements sung by the choir; a few were hymns sung by all. The service was magnificent.

Years ago, St. Paul’s put on a service much like that of St. Andrew’s late in the afternoon. In recent years, however, the service has been translated to Sunday morning. This created a quandary—shouldn’t there be a Eucharist at the principal Sunday service? For a time, we simply ignored the problem and did a lessons and carols service without a Eucharist. Apparently, we’re not doing that any more.

Unfortunately, adding a Eucharist to the lessons and carols format, even without a sermon, necessitates some cuts if one insists on keeping the length of the service below 75 minutes. The nine lessons of the Cambridge service became six today.

Service Details

One might quibble that the choir prepared no music specifically for today’s service—a departure from what was done years ago before the service was moved to Sunday morning—but I don’t think that worshipers were shortchanged. Lovely solos were sung by Sue Vines and Brian Brazon. Sue and Cathie Buschek played a four-hand postlude. Alexandra Thompson played a cello solo and accompanied other pieces, as did Tommy Starr on tympani. Katy Williams filled in for the boy soprano on the processional.

There was some confusion as to who was reading which lesson, which resulted in Chris Thompson’s reading two lessons. As is usually done at St. Paul’s, choir members read most of the lessons. (The rector read the last one.) There always seems to be confusion about how the lessons are to be introduced and concluded. In the King’s College service, lessons are introduced by a brief description and concluded with “thanks be to God.” I may not have been paying close attention, but, if memory serves, some lessons were introduced with a description, and others were introduced with a citation. All were ended with “the word of the Lord,” to which the congregation naturally responded “thanks be to God.” Maybe next year, we’ll get it right.

One of the minor joys of the December 16 service at St. Andrew’s was the continuity of the service. No one was telling the congregation to stand up or sit down or turn to a particular hymn in the hymnal. Everyone simply followed the program like an adult. (Well, it must be admitted that it was so dark in the church that one had to struggle to read the program. St. Andrew’s does not have the ability to dim lights without turning them off as St. Paul’s does.) In any case, Lou apparently fails to appreciate how annoying and insulting his stage directions are. Many parishioners agree with me on this point, though I suspect few share my visceral aversion to the practice. When I hear “we will now stand and sing hymn —,” it is all I can do to avoid running out of the chancel screaming.

Physical Setting


From my vantage point in the choir and with my experience as former Audio-Visual Co√∂rdinator and member of the Worship Committee, I cannot ignore problems with the physical environment. The good news today is that some of the spotlights that had been burned out for weeks (perhaps months) were working today. Of the five spots that had been non-functional, three were working last Sunday, and four were working today. I was pleased to see that one of the down lights at the crossing was working. I have no idea how the bulb was replaced—it is the most difficult bulb to replace in the entire church—nor why the bulb on the opposite side of the center aisle was not replaced.

A few weeks ago, I told Lou about the lamps that were burned out. The spotlights were at the top of my list, but I also noted that two lamps in lanterns were out, as was one lamp in the north aisle. Those lamps were still out today. Moreover, another lamp in the north aisle was also dark.

The most upsetting glitch in the decoration of the church was the presence of a lighted Advent wreath. We are done with Advent, people; this is Christmastide. We need to put the advent candles away for another year!

Speaking of candles, the pew candles were installed and lit today, as were the candles in the windows. This frankly looked silly, as the electric lighting in the church was as bright as it ever is. Candlelight only works when lighting is dim enough to allow the candles to have a significant effect on ambiance. I wonder if the candles were lit—presumably like the Advent wreath—simply because no one had bothered to put them away. If we were were going to use candles, the electric lighting should have been much dimmer.

There was one other lighting glitch. Neither the light on the pulpit nor the light above the pulpit were turned on. Switching these lamps on is often forgotten, and it was unfortunate that they were off today, as all the lessons were delivered from the pulpit.

I should also mention that, for today’s service, we used the two microphones dedicated to the choir. Given the size of our choir, it isn’t clear that we ever need these microphones, but someone clearly thought it was a good idea to incorporate them into our new sound system. Generally, we haven’t been using the microphones, but we did today for the two anthems sung by the choir, the Victoria Ava Maria and the Sedio arrangement of Coventry Carol. I would be interested in learning if using the microphones enhanced our music. One microphone was pointed toward the men singers. This might have been useful, as I have heard complaints that the men are often difficult to hear, perhaps because many of us are standing behind the organ console. The other microphone was not so much pointed toward the women singers as behind them, so I doubt it proved of much utility.

Final Thoughts


I suspect that most worshipers at 10:45 thought the service was lovely. At some level, it was, and it certainly had its high points. For me, it was marred by the presence of the Advent wreath—this was an unforgivable liturgical error—by lighting that failed to create the atmosphere the service deserved, by a lack of attention to certain details, and by incessant and unnecessary directions. I pray St. Paul’s will do a better job next year. I will certainly plan not to miss the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at St. Andrew’s in 2013.

1 comment:

Jennie said...

Just a note to thank you for your lovely review of St Andrew's Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols for Christmas...

It is available on YouTube in its entirety at the link below.