Sunday, December 25, 2016

Luke 2 in popular culture, 1700-2015

The Gospel according to St. Luke bears powerful witness to the coming of Our Savior into this world more than 2,000 years ago. Certain passages — such as the Annunciation — provide a unique perspective on how and why the Christ child came into the world.

In the very first (1549) Book of Common Prayer, the gospel reading for Christmas Day was Luke 2:1-14. In the 1928 (US) Book of Common Prayer, this passage is assigned for the earlier of the two services — typically Christmas Eve — with John 1:1-14 for the later service.

Although the 2016 ACNA lectionary has a three year cycle — with separate readings for Years A,B,C — at Christmas it uses the same readings every year. It allows for three possible Christmas services — with different psalms and Isaiah readings at teach — but assigns Luke for Christmas I and II (nowadays afternoon and evening of Christmas Eve) and John for Christmas III (Christmas Day). In the RCL, there are three services and Luke 2:1-14 is assigned for the first.

Authorized Version (1611)

The 1549 BCP used the Tyndale translations of the Gospels, but the version most often used is from the King James Version (“Authorized Version” in England).

The initial verses of Luke 2 explain how it is that Mary and Joseph end up in Bethlehem, and end with Jesus being laid in the manger. The passage beginning with verse 8 — which explains the appearance of the angel to the shepherds — appears to have been the often quoted over the next 400 years.

In the KJV, Luke 2:8-14 reads:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (1700)

In 1700, Irish poet Nahum Tate (1652-1715) published a collection of sacred poems that included one derived from Luke 2: 8-14. Here is the version of the poem that appeared in Hymnal 1916:
While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.

"Fear not," said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind;
"Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.

"To you, in David's town, this day
Is born of David's line,
The Savior, who is Christ the Lord;
And this shall be the sign:

"The heavenly Babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
And in a manger laid."

Thus spake the seraph, and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God, who thus
Addressed their joyful song:

"All glory be to God on high
And on the earth be peace;
Good will henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease."
Today, this hymn is most often sung to to Winchester Old, taken from a 1592 psalm book. Hymnal 1940 (13.1) includes all six verses, although 4 and 5 seem less often sung.

Handel’s Messiah (1741)

In 1712, the Lutheran Kapellmeister Georg Friedrich Händel to London. Thirty years later, in Dublin he premiered his most famous work, a sacred oratorio with a text taken straight from the Authorized Version.

Thanks to many years of singing and listening to the Messiah, I have memorized most of Luke 2:8-14 — skipping only verse 12 which Handle omits from his libretto:
14a. Recitative (Soprano): There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.

14b. Accompagnato (Soprano): And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.

15. Recitative (Soprano): And the angel said unto them: "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."

16. Accompagnato (Soprano): And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying:

17. Chorus: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men."
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

This Emmy-winning animated special — based on the characters of the Peanuts comic strip — was a favorite of my childhood, and even more of for younger sister as it played in reruns every December. (I also am reminded of it every year when I listen to the Vince Guraldi Trio jazz score as part of my Christmas music playlist.)

Charlie Brown is struggling with the meaning of Christmas, while his younger friend — philosopher Linus van Pelt — tries to help him understand. In climatic scene at the school Christmas concert, a frustrated Charlie Brown asks “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

In response, Linus takes the stage and reads Luke 2:8-14 from the Authorized Version.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (2015)

Fast forward 50 years. The special is for many an iconic symbol of the Christmas season, both to watch on TV and to re-enact in children’s Christmas pageants. At the same time, America has become far less Christian than it was in the 1950s and early 1960s.

In 2015, the superintendent of a rural Kentucky school district forbade the local elementary school from re-enacting Linus' most famous monologue. Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) protested this censorship, and the Alliance Defending freedom (a nonprofit law firm focusing on religious liberty) tried to convince the district to change their position — but to no avail. Instead, the audience on their own chose to read the deleted passage.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The right way to do Lessons & Carols

Today is the last day of Advent — and the last day to hear Lessons & Carols. Today is the 99th annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, hosted by King’s College Cambridge every Christmas Eve since 1918 — and broadcast this year (and 88 previous years) on the BBC radio.

My wife reminds me that I sang Lessons & Carols as a choirboy at the proto-cathedral. (She remembers it better because she went in years before and after when I was chorister). I’ve sung or read at several churches since. In 2016, I attended two services, as well as listening to the 90 minute Cambridge broadcast this morning (US time).

King’s College Cambridge 2016

The modern L&C service was inaugurated by KCC, and some of their traditions — always starting with a boy soprano solo for Once in Royal David’s City) have been widely emulated.

Until I compared the programs from the late 1990s to today, I had not realized that KCC had kept the same nine lessons for at least 20 years:
  1. Genesis 3:8-19*
  2. Genesis 22:15-18
  3. Isaiah 9:2-7 (dropping verses 3-5)
  4. Isaiah 11:1-9 (dropping verse 5 and parts of 3,4) 
  5. Luke 1:26-38 (dropping verses 36-37 about Mary’s cousin Elizabeth)
  6. Luke 2:1-7 (dropping verse 2, the reference to Quirinius)
  7. Luke 2:8-16
  8. Matthew 2:1-12
  9. John 1:1-14
* From 1997-2007, they skipped over Genesis 3:16 (“Your desire shall be for your husband”)

This year, the service had 15 choir carols and anthems, and five hymns (including the last 3 verses of Once in Royal David’s City) where the congregation can sing along. The other four hymns were:
  • O Little Town of Bethlehem, with Vaughan Williams’ tune Forest Green from The English Hymnal (21.1 in Hymnal 1940) and the Armstrong descant from New English Hymnal
  • While Shepherds Watched Their Flock, with everyone’s familiar 16th century tune Winchester Old
  • O Come, All Ye Faithful, the harmony familiar to Americans (from H40 and H82) that was taken from TEH, but with the David Willcocks arrangement and descant
  • Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, the familiar Mendelssohn tune, descant by Philip Ledger
For both Once in Royal David’s City and While Shepherds, the descants are by Stephen Cleobury, the music director of KCC for the past 34 years. (In 1988, he also published a retrospective on the 70th anniversary of the annual service).

Lessons for Other Parishes

Earlier this month, I attended L&C services with my family at a small CoE-affiliated parish in Spain and at a Catholic college closer to home. The structure of the former was closer to KCC, with nine lessons (including Genesis 3, Isaiah 9, Isaiah 11 and John 1). The Catholics only had six lessons (skipping Genesis and John’s gospel) but production values more similar to KCC.

Below are some notes on how I would organize an Advent L&C service if I were music director at an American Anglican parish:
  1. Neither concert nor worship service. You should recognize that the form is not like anything else the church does during the year. It’s not a concert, with more scripture than the congregation will hear at any other service. At the same time, it does not follow set Anglican liturgy — the lessons, the hymns/anthems/carols, and perhaps an opening or closing prayer.
  2. Major outreach/evangelism opportunity. This is one of the biggest opportunities of the year to bring visitors to church. (At the CoE service we attended, it was the largest turnout the new rector had ever seen). If the goal of the Church is to spread the Gospel, then there’s no better time during the year to do so. This means not just addressing it not only to active members, but irregular members, other C&E Christians, lapsed Christians and non-Christians.
  3. Be friendly to visitors. If there are visitors, they won’t know your secret code or rituals — if you want them to feel welcome, things should be logical and understandable. The #1 rule is you need a program (which was not true at the CoE service) — to tell people where they are, what’s coming up, and also who’s singing what. (If money or the environment is the issue, a half sheet of paper is enough).
  4. Your choir is not King’s College Cambridge. I’m singing in the best choir that I’ve been in since I’m 12, perhaps one of the best (organ-based) adult choirs of a Continuing Anglican church in California. (Let’s face it, in the ECUSA divorce they got custody of the cathedrals, organs and best music programs). But our choir is not King Choir Cambridge, and that’s true of 99.5% of the Anglican choirs in north America. Choir members, directors, organists etc. should remember is pride is a cardinal sin and humility a cardinal virtue: in this era of iTunes, Spotify and BBC, almost everyone has heard better performances. So be realistic in what you can do and then do your best, and don’t forget the most important rule…
  5. People have come to sing carols. There is no time of the year when your congregation more wants to sing – unlike Easter, even non-Christians are going to know many of the carols. You need to give them a chance to sing — which for most churches means letting them sing at least a part of more than half the carols. The college did it well, but the CoE parish wouldn’t let us sing “O Little Town” while asking us to learn an unfamiliar carol.
  6. Fill them with the joy of Christmas. We are preparing for one of the two universal feasts of the Christian year, and the one where the countervailing cultural pressures are the strongest. The lessons appeal to their heads — Jesus is the reason for the season — but singing carols should put joy in their hearts.
  7. The goal is to bring them back. This is a major (and relatively straightforward) service to present and a chance to put your best foot forward. Regular members should look forward to it every year, while new (or prospective) members should want to come back again.
Merry Christmas everyone.


Cleobury, Stephen. (1988). “Nine Lessons and Carols at King's: 70 Years on.” The Musical Times 129 (1750): 687-689. URL:

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Cultural universals in liturgical worship

The last three Sundays, I've worshipped in Spain, at home in California and Australia. The juxtaposition has given me additional insights into liturgical variations (and similarities) between cultures, and thus the degree to which churches should (or at least have) adapt their worship to the local culture.

When comparing two services, there are several possible variables: language, the order of service, what is said, the role of music and how those leading the service (and those in the pews) actually worship.

Language matters, but within the Western liturgical churches there is still a common heritage to the medieval Latin service. For example, both my wife and I have found strong affinity to service in Germany’s Roman Catholic church — we have a similar childhood and adult experience with high church Episcopalian (and now Anglican) worship, but I speak some German and she doesn’t. When I first visited Cologne cathedral in 1980, the service felt very familiar as the service followed what I'd known as a kid. My wife — who attended a small town mass with friends two years ago while I was traveling on business — says that the service she attended what quite recognizable from our childhood services.

But language isn’t everything. I've heard some claim that a Christian from the early church would recognize our 21st century services. That seems a bit much, but I certainly think an Italian from the early Middle Ages would recognize an Anglo-Catholic service more than an Englishman from Elizabethan England would recognize a nondenom praise band service.

This morning in Spain, despite not speaking the language, I recognized the order of lessons (Isaiah, Romans, Matthew) that would have been used at a US Catholic church or by Protestants under the Revised Common Lectionary year A. I also recognized the Lord’s Prayer and prayers of the people, and the Alleluia was the same one I’ve sung for decades (albeit with the syllables broken differently).

What was most different was that instead of hymns, the singing consisted of a series of chants by the cantor, with the congregation singing an antiphon after each phrase. The cantor tried to teach the congregation the antiphons, and I found (despite the language) I was able to sing along when the words matched the handout.

However, in a (IMHO foolish) attempt to save money or the planet, the handout only covered what was different for the season of Advent. There were several antiphons that were not handed out — perhaps they were familiar to regular worshippers — but the net effect was to exclude visitors from participation in the worship.

I had hoped from the handout we would sing (in Catalan) perhaps the most universal Advent hymn
Veniu, veniu, oh Emmanuel,
sou l'esperança d'Israel
que en trist exili ací tothora
redempció de vós implora.
Exulta! Exulta! Israel,
a tu vindrà l'Emmnanuel.

Veniu, esclat del nostre hivern,
Oh Saviesa de l'Etern!
De vostra llum el món fretura
per retrobar-vos dalt l'altura.
Exulta! Exulta! Israel,
a tu vindrà l'Emmnanuel.

Veniu, oh Rei Omnipotent,
d'antics oracles compliment.
Veniu, refeu nostra flaquesa,
Déu eternal, font de bonesa.
Exulta! Exulta! Israel,
a tu vindrà l'Emmanuel.
but apparently that was for an earlier Sunday.

In Australia, I attended two communion services: one fro the 1995 Australian prayer book at an Anglo-Catholic parish, and the other using the 1662 BCP at an evangelical one. Not surprisingly, the former used the ICEL translation of the Sanctus (“…God of power and might”) and other parts of the ordinary; the latter had the Elizabethan words, even if in an unfamiliar order. So the latter was nominally more similar to Anglo-Catholic worship from Rite I or the 1928 BCP.

But if you ignored the words and watched what people did, the liturgical practice was just the opposite. At the Anglo-Catholic (modern language) church, nearly everyone made the sign of the cross and most kneeled at the familiar parts of the service. At the evangelical (traditional language) church, there were no kneelers and no sign of the cross; it also had a sermon more than 30 minutes long (versus 12 minutes at my home parish).

Still, it seems as though there is a distinct subset of the Western church today that retains the liturgy and practices of the pre-Reformation church. For these Christians, worshipping in another denomination with similar liturgical style (e.g. at a baptism, wedding or in a mixed marriage) will be comfortable, as will a chaplain’s service at a college, in a hospital or the military.

The issue of East and West seems more insurmountable. My Orthodox (ex-Episcopalian) friend claims there are many similarities, but in my one visit to his (Greek) church they were hard to find. Many of the non-ethnic Orthodox parishes in the U.S. use familiar words (where applicable) and so at such churches there might be more recognizable similarities.

Still, there seem fewer opportunities for common ground. In the 13th century, the emperor Michael Paeologus — founder of the last dynasty of the Byzantine Empire — tried to reunify the Eastern church with Rome barely 200 years after the Great Schism. However, the laity (and some clergy) of the Greek church sabotaged his efforts because they didn’t want to give up their distinct worship style in the name of unity with Rome — even though it ultimately meant surrendering the empire to the Ottoman invaders.

Thus we must constantly pray for healing the divisions in Christ’s church, even if such healing (like the second coming) may not happen in our lifetimes.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Streaming ethereal Advent music

We are ending the first week of Advent. In the larger society, Advent (i.e. the pre-Christmas season) is marked by Christmas trees, decorations, slogans and music.

As liturgical Christians, we get to celebrate Advent on four Sunday mornings in December. At some churches — or metropolitan areas — we can also attend a service of lessons and carols. (However, in some cases these services are late-Advent tellings of the Christmas story. rather than a focus on Advent, per se.)

And then there are the great English church choirs, particularly at cathedral schools and universities. For Anglican Music, these are the ne plus ultra of music for the liturgical seasons.

The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge is one of the oldest performing organizations for English choral music. As their website says (links added)::
Voted the fifth best choir in the world in Gramophone magazine's "20 Greatest Choirs", The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge comprises around thirty Choral Scholars and two Organ Scholars, all of whom are ordinarily undergraduates of the College.

The College’s choral tradition dates back to the all-male choir of the fourteenth century, when former Chapel Royal choristers studied in King’s Hall, which later became part of Trinity College. Directors of Music have included Charles Villiers Stanford, Alan Gray, Raymond Leppard and Richard Marlow. Female voices were introduced in the 1980s by Richard Marlow, in a new departure for Cambridge choral music.
On Sunday, these undergraduates performed an Advent Carol Service on the first Sunday of Advent. The service (including hymns, anthems and readings) is available for web streaming. The musical components of the service were:
  • Responses by Richard Marlow
  • Anthem: Creator of the stars of night (text: 7th century; tune: Conditor alme siderum)
  • Hymn: Of the Father’s heart begotten (text: Prudentius; ttune: Piae Cantiones)
  • Hymn: Come, thou redeemer of the earth (text: Ambrose; tune: Praetorius)
  • Anthem: There is no rose (text: 15th century; tune: anon.)
  • Anthem: A great and mighty wonder (text: Germanus; tune: Praetorius)
  • Hymn: O come, O come, Emmanuel (text: 15th? century; tune: Thomas Helmore)
  • Anthem: There is a flower (text: 15th century; tune: John Rutter)
  • Anthem: Ave, maria stella (text: 8th century; tune: Owain Park)
  • Hymn: On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry (text; Charles Coffin; tune: Winchester New)
  • Anthem: Wachet auf! (text, tune: Phillip Nicolai; arranged by J.S. Bach)
  • Anthem: E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come (text: Ruth Manz; tune: Paul Manz)
  • Hymn: Come, thou long expected Jesus (text; Charles Wesley; tune: John Stainer)
  • Anthem: Benedicamus Domino (text: 15th century; tune: Peter Warlock)
  • Hymn: Lo! he comes with clouds descending (text: Charles Wesley; tune: Olivers)
  • Anthem: Puer natus est
The hymns are not included in the program, because the arrangements by David Wilcocks (1919-2015) and various descants are not in the public domain.

When school is in session, they broadcast live (and recorded) on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Their next live broadcast will be January 22, 2017.