Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Lessons & Music

Service booklet cover from King’s College
The 10:45 service on the First Sunday after Christmas was described as “Lessons & Music,” which has become our usual label for a version of “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols,” the service made famous by King’s College Cambridge. The King’s College service is always held on Christmas Eve. Because I had listened to the service on the radio and had experienced a version of it at Christ Church, Indiana, that same evening, I was more attentive than usual to details of the service that St. Paul’s does the Sunday after Christmas. That service is largely the responsibility of the music department, and choir members read all but the final lesson, which is read by the rector. (At King’s College, the final lesson is read by the provost, who, as best I can tell, is the analogue of an American college president.)

Doug always distributes the readings to choir members, but it seems that every year there is some confusion about what readers say before and after their passage of scripture. I had been assigned the first reading, so I couldn’t simply rely on doing whatever the previous reader did, so I decided that we couldn’t go wrong by following King’s College. As you can see from the service bulletin (see link above), each passage is described briefly, and the lesson is concluded with “Thanks be to God.”

I prepared a handout with all the lesson descriptions and the instruction about how the readings should be concluded. When I saw the St. Paul’s bulletin, however, I discovered that (1) we were only reading six lessons, and (2) the bulletin included descriptions of the passages. Our descriptions differed from those I had compiled, but they were serviceable, so I told readers to preface their readings with the descriptions from the bulletin. This worked out fine.

I suppose that, in previous years, I concentrated on what the choir had to sing and somehow missed the fact that we read fewer than nine lessons. I was aware of a fundamental problem with the service, however. It is not a communion service, and, if done at a time when people would normally expect communion—on Christmas Eve or on a Sunday morning—this is something of a problem, however beautiful the service is. Some years ago, we just did our version of the King’s College service, and I felt ambivalent because of the lack of communion. Now, apparently, we shorten the special service and tack on communion at the end. In fact, on Sunday, the service ended earlier than usual.

So what have we cut from the English model? St. Paul’s dropped the reading from Isaiah 11 (no rod out of the stem of Jesse), the second lesson from Luke 2 (no shepherds), and the lesson from Matthew 2 (no wise men, either). You can decide for yourself how essential these readings are.

I have always wondered, by the way, why we insist on calling the service “Lessons & Music,” rather than “Lessons & Carols.” Arguably, all the music paired with the lessons are carols. (Well, I suppose the duet from Vivaldi’s “Gloria” is not actually a carol, but that’s only one ringer.)

Anyway, the service largely went smoothly, although I did have a slight problem. I had misplaced the copy of the lesson (Genesis 3:8–15, 17–19) that Doug had given me at our last rehearsal. When I asked Doug on Sunday morning if I could have another copy, he said he didn’t have one and suggested that I could simply read from a Bible. Happily, I had a backup plan. I had taken my tablet to church and was prepared to read the lesson from my copy of the NRSV on the device. This worked well—almost. In walking to the pulpit, I did not keep my tablet upright, and, when I placed it on the lectern, the device had rotated the text from portrait to landscape orientation. (I had not thought to  lock the display.) I read the introduction to my lesson and turned the tablet 90 degrees. Unfortunately, it seemed to take forever to redraw the screen in portrait mode. I’m sure everyone was wondering why I had inserted such a long pause. I hope I made up for any discomfort I caused by reading the passage reasonably well.

You may have noticed that we did not read Genesis: 3:16. This verse was not omitted by King’s College, although I did do a double take when I heard it on the radio. When I saw that it was not part of the first lesson, I knew immediately why. Here it is from the NRSV:
To the woman he said,
   “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
      in pain you shall bring forth children,
   yet your desire shall be for your husband,
      and he shall rule over you.”
The verse is a feminist’s nightmare, but its omission is almost as problematic as its inclusion. Beginning in verse 14, God addresses the serpent after the forbidden fruit is eaten. God addresses the woman in verse 16. God address the man beginning in verse 17. By omitting verse 16, it seems that God is ignoring Eve, who is, after all, an important player in this little drama. God’s ignoring Eve hardly advances the cause of gender equality.

The choir readers were on board with how the lessons were to be read. No one spoke to Lou, however. I assumed I was not going to convince him to do what everyone else was doing unless it suited him. We hoped that he would observe what we did and choose to read the final lesson in like manner. That didn’t happen. He cited the passage and ignored its description. He ended with “The Word of the Lord,” to which the congregation duly responded with “Thanks be to God.” Sigh.

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