In these weekly reflections for Advent, we are going to be using the first four readings from the Nine Lessons and Carols service made famous by being broadcast by the BBC from the chapel of King’s College Cambridge each Christmas. They’re all from the Old Testament. And we are looking for Comfort and Joy in the Old Testament.
You can watch the live streamed video of this reflection, followed by a brief service of night prayer (‘compline’) here
In our first reading, from Genesis 3, Adam and Eve are in the beautiful garden that God has created. There is only one rule: you can eat the fruit of any tree; but not that one – the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die. Sounds simple enough! But you know what happens. Like a sign on a door that says, Wet Paint. Do not touch. You didn’t even know you wanted to touch the door until you saw the sign… (Click the link below to read the passage.)
This year, 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the world: the greatest health crisis since the so-called Spanish flu of 1918.
So, let me take you back to Christmas 1918. The first World War had ended but not all the troops were home. Some were still in prisoner-of-war camps, and, of course, some would never return to family and friends.
The R number – that term we are so familiar with today – was between 2 and 3, boosted by the movement of troops, and the impact that the war had had on people’s immune systems. Wartime censorship left people ignorant and unprepared. The pandemic’s second wave struck in late 1918. There were no antibiotics to treat secondary infection, let alone antiviral drugs to treat the virus itself.
So, Christmas 1918. Some called it the Peace Christmas, but it’s clear that the world has been devastated by war and by the pandemic.
Eric Milner-White, who was 34 years old had been an army chaplain in the war. He was now the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, newly appointed to the post. He knew that the Church of England’s regular diet of prayer-book services needed something fresh and imaginative, and was determined to plan something special for Christmas Eve. He turned to an order of service drawn up by E.W. Benson, Bishop of Truro, for Christmas Eve 1880, for his cathedral which at the time was a large wooden shed. Benson had been concerned about the amount of drinking that went on in Cornwall during the festive season, and one of his aims was to attract revellers out of the pubs and into church on Christmas Eve. He created a service of nine bible lessons and nine carols. Bear in mind that, before the late C19th, carols were not sung in church. They were secular songs for people to sing at home, in the streets and in alehouses; folk songs, not choral pieces sung by robed choirs accompanied by a magnificent cathedral organ. So, Benson brought carols into the cathedral. He became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883 and took this approach with him, further popularising the singing of carols in church and the format of nine lessons and carols.
Dean Milner-White who brought the carol service to Cambridge in 1918, said the purpose of the service was, through its bible readings, to show
“the development of the loving purposes of God … seen through the windows and words of the Bible”.
He wrote the bidding prayer, still in use today in the chapel at King’s, and, adapted for use elsewhere.
Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels; in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.
Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child.
This is followed by prayer -so those who are able to enjoy the celebration of the birth of Jesus remember “in his name the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed; the sick in body and in mind and them that mourn; the lonely and the unloved; the aged and the little children; all who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.”
let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.
You can imagine the power of those words in 1918. That, as we celebrate Christmas, we also remember
‘all those who rejoice with us but on another shore and in a greater light’.
The King’s College website tells us that
“the centre of the service is still found by those who ‘go in heart and mind’ and who consent to follow where the story leads.”
The story of ‘The loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience’ takes us today to the first lesson, from Genesis chapter three, where “God tells sinful Adam that he has lost the life of Paradise and that his seed will bruise the serpent’s head.” This is the story of ‘man’s first disobedience’ and its consequences.
Comfort and Joy?
I must admit, I tend to leave out these early readings when I’m planning a carol service! Perhaps our attention span isn’t what it was early in the C20th. Or maybe I am just anxious to get to the good bits – the bits with angels and shepherds and stars and magi… There’s not much comfort and joy in the inglorious story of Adam and Eve and the serpent.
But the Dean’s scheme is clever. Why is the birth of the Redeemer good news? Because we need to be redeemed. The sin of Adam and Eve is our sin too: we know better than God what is good for us! Well, we think we do. “I want to live in a universe where I am at the centre”. Let me tell you, that a universe where I am at the centre is no paradise! Never mind, “If I ruled the world…” It’s a good job I don’t! The crafty serpent offers us what we want: the right to doubt God’s faithfulness, to doubt God’s goodness, and strike out on our own, to be our own people. The story of the Garden of Eden is our story. We swap intimate fellowship with God – “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” – for a life of exile, alienation, separation from God, where everything is broken, including our relationships with God, with one another, with our planet and even ourselves, our own bodies. We traded a life of innocent bliss for a life of brokenness, shame and guilt.
Of course, it’s not my fault. Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent. It’s just that there was something in me that resonated when the serpent offered a diabolical alternative to God’s good garden.
Where is the comfort and joy in the story of our fall from grace, our dis-grace? We have to wait until later in the carol service to hear the angels’ message to a band of frightened shepherds:
‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.Luke 2.10.11
And, as the prologue to John’s gospel tells us, it’s the good news of light shining in the darkness.
In the darkness of a broken world – the world of 1918 and the world of 2020 – the light shines and the darkness has never overcome it. (John 1.5)