Lessons & Carols

As the daylight hours diminish in the early days of December, faculty, staff and students are busy completing course work and special projects prior to the end of the semester. In the midst of this hectic time, the Office of the College Chaplains and the College Choir host the Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols, providing an opportunity to gather as a community and reflect-in prayer, Scripture and song-on the joyous message of Christmas.

By Pam Reponen
Photos by Dan Vaillancourt

Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming

From tender stem hath sprung! ...

It came, a flow'ret bright,

Amid the cold of winter,

When half-spent was the night.


Thus begins the fourth anthem of Lessons and Carols, performed by the Holy Cross College Choir at the midpoint of the program-an invitation to experience ever more deeply the peace and hope of the Advent season.

Lessons and Carols-which celebrated its 35th year at Holy Cross on Dec. 6-is a service of Scripture and song performed during the Advent season, in preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. The program itself is composed of nine Scripture readings (or "lessons"), each followed by a musical selection performed by the Choir that reflects on the message of the reading, a brief prayer and additional carols sung in unison with the assembly.

The program, which has its foundation in the Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours of the Roman Catholic Church, was first introduced Christmas Eve 1880, in England by Edward White Benson, the first bishop of Truro in Cornwall. With the construction of a new cathedral under way and a wooden shed serving as the temporary home of Truro Anglican Cathedral, Benson, in keeping with the humble surroundings for the celebration, devised the simple order of service.

This format was adapted by Eric Milner-White in 1918 for the Chapel of King's College in Cambridge, England, where it has become an annual tradition. First broadcast from King's College by the BBC in 1928, Lessons and Carols quickly gained in popularity within the Anglican Church and among other Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church.

The program of Lessons and Carols is a popular winter tradition at many colleges and universities. It began at Holy Cross in 1978, as the result of collaboration between the late Rev. Robert Manning, S.J., who, at the time, served as a College chaplain, and the late Bruce Miller, then director of the College Choir.

"Fr. Manning initiated the conversation with College officials about the possibility of holding the service at Holy Cross before the students left at the end of the semester," recalls Rev. Paul Harman, S.J., who currently serves as vice president for mission and, in the late 1970s, held the post of executive vice president. "Once approved, Bruce Miller put together a small orchestra, the College Choir, and the Chaplains' Office provided the readers. At the time we didn't have the beautiful organ that is now part of the ceremony."

When he returned to the Hill in 2009, Fr. Harman was "overjoyed" to find that the service had not only continued, but grown. "Fr. Manning loved good sacred music, and he would be so proud to see how this tradition continued," he says. "Lessons and Carols provides an opportunity to share with the entire campus an ancient and wonderful tradition open to all, and, for Christians, it's a way to come together in anticipation of Christmas, which is celebrated when the students are away."

Paul Covino, associate chaplain and director of liturgy at Holy Cross, observes that, many parishes and a number of Jesuit colleges hold the Lessons and Carols service during the Advent season, although it is not an official liturgy of the Catholic Church-and, because of this status, program presenters are free to adapt it.

For this reason, too, he explains, "The director of the College Chaplains, whether ordained or not, male or female, leads the service as presider, providing an opportunity for the assembly to witness a layperson serve in this capacity." Current Chaplains' Office Director Marybeth Kearns-Barrett '84 performs this role.

The program traditionally starts with "Once in Royal David's City" as the processional and concludes with "Adeste Fideles." Other musical selections vary from year to year and conductor to conductor. "The readings show God's action in human history, from the beginning of time until the birth of Jesus," Covino says, adding that the cycle continues beyond the Christmas story "to present Jesus as having been with God from the beginning and continuing to pervade the world today as the Word of God."

The Holy Cross College Choir is composed of approximately 50 students, both music majors and non-music majors, who, for the past two years, have performed Lessons and Carols under the leadership of interim Choral Director Christopher Shepard. Also taking part in the program are the Holy Cross Chamber Singers, a select group of about 20 vocalists, directed by Shepard and chosen from the choir membership. Vocalists from both groups serve as soloists during the performance.

Next: The music is magical...