Nine Lessons and Carols 2019

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Nine Lessons and Carols 2019

O Lord, grant that what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts, we may show forth in our lives. Amen.

You have probably noticed that at this time of year there is a very perceptible crescendo of carol singing as we approach Christmas Day. Radio stations have their sonic equivalent of the ‘Advent Calendar’, increasing the Christmas flavour as the anticipation mounts, such that Classic FM will be playing little else by Christmas Eve. Strictly speaking the ‘Christmas Season’ begins on Christmas Eve (not December 1st!), by which time many people have heard as many Christmas carols as they can bear, and by New Year’s Day the Christmas music has diminished and normal service is resumed. The popular song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ reminds us all too clearly that there are twelve days after Christmas in the season, and we might remember that Christmastide evolves into Epiphanytide which actually lasts until Candlemas on February 2nd, when the Church celebrates the ‘Presentation of Christ in the Temple’. So the Christmas season lasts forty days. Yet if we added that to the carolling run up to Christmas, we would have two months of Christmas carols! – and you can leave your decorations up until February 2nd if you like!

That would be wonderful. Most Christmas Carols are actually hymns: hymns of praise to God, extolling the virtues of divine love; the saving work of God, the theology of incarnation and reminding us of the biblical story. At no other time of year do we hear so much Christian gospel in our shops, on our streets and on the airwaves. For many of us carol singing is the sound of Christmas, and even if some folk never darken the doors of a church, they love carols. Many people do come to Church at Christmas, Church of England statistics reveal that around two and a half million people have attended services consistently over the last decade. Services of ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ have been going for a century now and attract large numbers, especially if candlelit, and provide a staple menu of Christmas hymns sung by the congregation, carols sung by a choir and the telling of the ‘run up to Christmas’ in Biblical terms. And her we are, in the midst of it, with full choir, newly restored and rebuilt organ, and of course, mulled wine and mince pies. According to the ‘A Church ear you website’ there are 24, 474 Christmas events in churches this year, and at 2934 of them you can have a mince pie. Sadly, at only 1919 of them will you get mulled wine. What’s that all about? Mince pie and no mulled wine? They must be dreaming of a White Christmas instead, perhaps prosecco or Blue Nun.

There is a particular kind of Christmas Carol that is macaronic. It means ‘sung in two languages’. Many carols take this form, especially those which quote the angels’ ‘gloria’ in Latin. ‘gloria in excelsis’ is a frequent refrain in carols, such as in ‘Angels from the realms of glory’, which we have heard tonight. Also the fun, but somewhat silly, ‘Ding Dong! merrily on high’. Nowadays there is still a need to sing carols in two languages, not Latin and English so much, but the language of faith and the language of fun. When we sing ‘Hark the Herald’ or ‘O Come, all ye faithful’ we might be singing because we believe what we are singing, or not. This is the point: that in pubs and schools hymns such as these, which expound and reflect upon the story of Christmas are sung by all and sundry, only some of whom are aware what they are singing, or believe in what they are singing. Atheists and those of other faiths join in singing of the one who was ‘born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth’. Similarly Christina Rosetti’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ set so beautifully by Gustav Holst, Harold Darke and more recently by Bob Chilcott in the version we just heard, concludes with the profound verse:

What can I give him, Poor as I am?If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb,
If I were a Wise Man I would do my part, -
Yet what I can I give him, give my heart.

One might reflect on what is going on internally for those who sing this carol but who do not mean anything by it. What are the alternative truths of Christmas Carols? The fake Christmas news that is superimposed on the true good news of Emmmauel, God with us, the Babe of Palestine, made real for us in bread and wine?

Many of us love singing carols and mean what we sing: such carol singing is macaronic in a modern sense: festive and faithful. Obviously, and delightfully, it is possible and desirable to be both. And in doing so, and in being both our hope and prayer is everyone might come to believe what they sing and sing what they believe.

Carol singing is a wonderful, fun, unifying, reflective thing to do at this time of year. Long may it continue, and long may the angels’ song and the story of salvation through incarnation resound in our churches, pubs, streets and concert halls.

O Lord, grant that what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts, we may show forth in our lives. Amen.

The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 22/12/19