Advent -- Sing and Celebrate

Planning for a Service of Lessons and Carols

This Advent or Christmas is the perfect time to introduce a service that will enrich the season with music and the telling of the story. The service of lessons and carols originated in England in 1918, and has been celebrated at Kings College Cambridge yearly. The popularity of the service has grown and is celebrated by many churches in both its traditional form and adaptations that use different readings.

The plan is simple, using seven to nine readings (nine is traditional) interspersed with carols sung by choir, and with congregational singing. Your adaptation could include a variety of elements, and even visual images. The real backbone of the service, however, is the telling of the story, and so the selection of readings and readers is of primary importance. In the original King's College service, the lessons were read by a variety of congregation members, starting with a young chorister and ending with the bishop. For your service, plan to have a variety of readers.

Here are some thoughts about designing the service.

• Convene a team including musician, pastor, and other worship planners as much in advance as possible.

• Decide when you will hold the service. It is wonderful on Christmas Eve. It also works well on one of the last Sundays of Advent. It could be done after Christmas in the days leading to the Festival of Epiphany.

• Select the readings that you will use. The lists that follow are a starting point and have been successfully tried out by others.

• Look at the "heart" of each reading, and begin to think of the kinds of music that would be complementary to the reading. Remember, the idea is not to find music that is an exact match, but rather conveys some feeling or meaning of the reading. Generally, hymns and carols, anthems, and instrumental pieces are chosen to follow each of the readings.

• Here is the perfect time to draw upon the gifts of your congregation. For example, recruit an oboe player, a folksinger, a soloist who rarely has a chance to sing. Take the pressure off the regular musicians of the church to do everything. In multiple choir churches, it can be a time to let each group contribute a song or two and share the responsibilities.

• This is the time for the congregation to sing a few carols. (Best not to overdo—five carols is plenty for most congregations.)

• Add variety to the carols for congregation by listing in the bulletin things like: stanza one, choir and congregation; stanza two, choir. This would work well for larger congregations.

• Not every piece of music has to have words. Instrumental music provides a chance for reflection on a reading from the Bible.

• Consider images that might be projected in connection with readings. Here again, as with music it is not as important to find a piece of art that illustrates the story, but more importantly conveys the deep meaning of the reading.

• Look at ways to include music that enriches and expands understandings—such as songs from various cultures, songs in various languages, in addition to congregation's traditional favorites.

• Take a look at the overall plan of the service. It can be as simple as this: gathering music, processional of the readers, worship leaders, and singers, opening prayer, the seven or nine lessons and carols, closing prayer, and recessional music as readers and leaders leave.

• The traditional form adds a greeting before the opening prayer and a blessing and final carol for congregation after the closing prayer. Note that in neither of these outlines, there is a sermon. If a sermon is to be added, it should not take away from the flow of the storytelling. Likewise, if Holy Communion is part of the service, it might take place after the last lesson and carol and be followed by a blessing and final song.

• Finally, lessons and carols can be done in any size congregation, using whatever abilities there are.

Suggested Service of Lessons and Carols

Gathering Music (by the instrumentalists or organist)

Welcome (by the pastor)

Processional Hymn "Once in Royal David's City" TNCH 145
(Verse 1, choir; verse 2, everybody, verse 3, children, verse 4, 5, entire congregation)

Opening Prayer (an elder member of the congregation)

Musical meditation (a short, quiet piece by handbells)

The First Lesson Genesis 1:1–5, 14–18 (God said, "Let there be light")
(perhaps read by a child)

Carol "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" TNCH 116
(This carol maybe played by oboe and organ as an image of stars, or ice crystals, and other representation of light is projected.)

The Second Lesson Genesis 22:1–8 (The promise to Abraham and Sarah)

Solo (soloist sing)

The Third Lesson Isaiah 9:2, 6–7 ("The people who have walked in darkness")

Carol "Toda la Tierra (All Earth is Waiting)" TNCH 121
(Soloist sings verses 1 and 2 in Spanish, congregation sings verses 1 and 2 in English, verses 3 and 4 are sung in both languages together.)

The service moves forward from this point alternating readings with music—and perhaps with images, liturgical movement, or other art forms. Use your imagination to develop each reading, and don't forget to include a few of the congregation's favorite carols.

Suggested Scripture Readings for Advent

The traditional Advent Service of Lessons and Carols includes up to seven readings with a focus on themes of prophesy, the promise of a Messiah, and God's reign of justice and peace. These suggested readings and those for Christmas come from Celebrate God's Presence: A Book of Services for the United Church of Canada.

Isaiah 40:1–11 Comfort, O comfort my people
Jeremiah 23:5–6 Hope for a righteous branch, a just ruler
Zechariah 9:9–10 Promise of a leader, a reign of peace
Haggai 2:6–9 The promise of a new and glorious temple
Isaiah 35:1–10 The desert shall rejoice and blossom
Luke 1:26–35, 38 The birth of Jesus foretold by Gabriel
Mark 1:1–15 Jesus proclaims the coming of God's reign

Other readings may be included or substituted such as those appointed by the lectionary for the Sundays of Advent or the following.

Genesis 2:4b–9, 15–25 God made the earth and the heavens
Isaiah 10:33–11:9 A shoot from the stump of Jesse
Isaiah 49:8–13 God has comforted the people
Isaiah 58:1, 5–8a A fast to loose the bonds of injustice
Isaiah 59:9–11 Justice and righteousness is far away
Isaiah 64:1–9a Tear open the heavens and come down
Isaiah 65:17–25 A new heaven and a new earth
Jeremiah 31:31–34 I will write my law on their hearts
Micah 2:2–5a From Bethlehem, shall come a ruler
Zephaniah 3:14–20 I will bring you home
Baruch 4:36–5:9 God's children gathered from west and east
Luke 1:5–25 To Zechariah and Elizabeth, a son will be born
John 1:1–14 The mystery of the incarnation
Romans 8:28–29 All things work together for good

Suggested Scripture Readings for Christmas Eve/Season

The traditional Christmas Service of Lessons and Carols includes up to nine readings with a focus on telling the story of salvation and birth of Jesus. Readings may be shortened or omitted as indicated.

Genesis 1:1-5, 14–18 God said, "Let there be light"
Genesis 22:1–8 The promise to Abraham and Sarah
Isaiah 9:2, 6–7 The people who have walked in darkness
Micah 5:2–5a From Bethlehem, shall come forth a ruler
Luke 1:26–35, 38 The birth of Jesus foretold by Gabriel
Matthew 1:18–25 Joseph is engaged to Mary
Luke 2:1–20 Angels announce Jesus' birth
(omit verse 1–7 if Matthew 1:18–25 is read)
Matthew 2:1–11 The magi follow a star to find the child Jesus
John 1:1–14 The mystery of the incarnation

Other readings may be included or substituted such as those appointed by the lectionary for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or the Sundays after Christmas, or the following:

Genesis 9:8–17 God's rainbow covenant with Noah
Exodus 3:1–12 Moses at the burning bush
Ruth 1:1–18 Your people, my people; your God, my God
Isaiah 7:10–15 The young woman shall bear a son
Isaiah 11:1–9 A reign of justice and peace for all
Luke 1:39–56 Mary visits Elizabeth
Luke 2:1–7 Mary gives birth to Jesus
Luke 2:21–35 Simeon and Anna witness the Messiah
Titus 2:11–14 The grace of God has appeared
1 Peter 2:9–10 Now you are God's people
Hebrews 1:1–12 In these last days, God has spoken to us

Musical Resources

The New Century Hymnal includes a variety of songs, carols, and hymns for Advent and Christmas. They may be found on pages 101 through 153. Many of these same carols are included in The New Century Book of Carols: Traditional Favorites in Inclusive Language. The booklet includes 20 carols and is also an excellent resource for Christmas caroling. (Available through United Church Resources at 800.537.3394.) Recordings of lessons and carols including those from Kings College are numerous and filled with ideas.

Prayers and Blessings

For prayers and blessings, suggested resources include Book of Worship: United Church of Christ and Celebrate God's Presence: A Book of Services for the United Church of Canada. Gifts of Many Cultures: Worship Resources for the Global Community by Maren C. Tirabassi and Kathy Wonson Eddy includes wonderful global prayers for Advent and Christmas.

TNCH refers to hymns or resources from The New Century Hymnal (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1995). Similar resources may be found in other hymnals.

These suggestions were prepared by Arthur G. Clyde, Minister for Worship, Music, and Liturgical Arts. He is on staff with the Worship and Education Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, Cleveland, Ohio. For more information, contact him at .

Copyright 2003 Worship and Education Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ, Cleveland. Permission is granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education. All publishing rights reserved. Designed and printed by United Church Resources, Local Church Ministries.


Rev. Susan A. Blain
Minister for Worship, Liturgy and Spiritual Formation
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, Ohio 44115