Our tradition at Covenant PCA is to have a Service of Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve. We will do so again on Friday, December 24th, at 6 PM, and all are invited to join us. In this post, I will share some of the historical background for this special service.
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is a tradition begun by Anglican Bishop E. W. Benson, who first employed it as a Christmas Eve service at Truro Cathedral in England in 1880. His son later wrote about it:
My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve — nine carols and nine tiny lessons, which were read by various officers of the church beginning with a chorister, and ending, through different grades with a bishop.
This service was adapted in 1918 by Dean Eric Milner-White for use in King’s College, Cambridge, where it has become an annual Christmas Eve tradition. The performance there has been broadcast on the radio almost every year since 1928. Milner-White explained the purpose of the service in these words:
Its liturgical order and pattern is the strength of the service; the main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God, from the Creation to the Incarnation, through the windows and words of the Bible: the scriptures, not the carols, are the backbone.
Our service at Covenant is an adaptation of this traditional service, and our goal is the same — to walk through the Scriptures to see how the redemptive history they record led to the birth of our Savior. We employ congregational reading and congregational singing throughout the service with a brief pastoral meditation. Please join us to take part in our Service of Lessons and Carols on Friday, December 24th, at 6 PM.
“What did you get for Christmas?” That was a question I heard many times as a child each year in the days following December 25th. It invited a rehearsal of all the gifts I had received in my Christmas stocking and around the Christmas tree, and I was more than happy to respond with a litany of my Christmas loot. After all, I had been anticipating the annual rite of ripping into the wrapping paper for many months. Finally, items from my wish list were really mine to own, enjoy, and talk about. It sure is fun to receive gifts!
My good friend, Tom, used to tweak the typical post-Christmas interrogation by asking a slightly different question: “What did you give for Christmas?” He would not place any emphasis on the word “give,” and quite often people would misunderstand and respond with a list of things they had received. Tom would smile, interrupt the excited recital, and say, “I didn’t ask what you got for Christmas. I asked what you gave for Christmas.” He didn’t do this to play the part of Scrooge but to challenge folks to find joy in the other side of the gift exchange equation.
I, for one, appreciated Tom’s gentle challenge. To be sure, I like to receive gifts and am still known to compile a wish list as Christmas approaches. But I’ve found increasing joy in giving gifts at Christmas and on other occasions. Gift giving is quite an art. To be done well, it requires really knowing the recipient and reflecting on what would be meaningful to him or her. Such gift giving is not perfunctory; it is an expression of love and friendship. “Success” is found in the expression of joy on the recipient’s face that says the gift was well chosen (or at least that the attempt was appreciated!).
The world tries to commercialize Christmas, making the exchange of gifts a veritable sacrament of capitalism. We’re told that we need to spend a lot, since the price of a gift is supposed to be a measure of its worth. To that I say, “Bah, humbug!” We can give without breaking the bank, when giving is an expression of love based in knowledge of the beloved.
As Christians, we know that God gave the greatest gift ever when He sent His Son into the world to be born in Bethlehem. At Christmas, we commemorate the birth of our Savior – surely a cause for festivity and the festive exchange of gifts. As that day approaches, let us look forward to it with joyful anticipation. But let us be careful that ours not be a materialistic joy rooted only in what we expect others to give to us. Let our gift exchange be a true celebration of the gift of our Savior and not an expression of the worst aspects of capitalism.
Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20.35). With that in mind and in homage to my late friend, Tom, I ask: “So what are you going to give this Christmas?”
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever.
Isaiah 9:6-7 (NKJV)
Birth of a Conqueror
Christmas celebrates the birth of a mighty conqueror. It is easy to lose sight of this amidst the sights and sounds of the season, and it is not just commercialism and the secular trappings of the holiday that can have this effect. Ubiquitous nativity scenes and carols focused on the baby Jesus can lure us into a kind of sappy sentimentalism that forgets just who this baby was and why He was born in Bethlehem all those years ago. Even many unbelievers join in the holiday spirit, because they don’t find anything threatening about a baby in a manger (though they should). Earlier generations did not forget the truth that Jesus came as a mighty conqueror. This theme finds exquisite expression in John Milton’s poem, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” composed in 1629.
Christmas Victory Over Pagan Gods
Milton’s 27-stanza ode celebrates Christ’s birth as a time of victory over pagan deities in all their forms. The poet provides a veritable catalog of ancient competitors to Christ. He speaks of deities we read about in the Old Testament, such as Baal and Peor and Moloch. He references mythic beings like Nymphs and the gods of Egypt, Libya, and Rome. All of these, Milton proposes, began to be swept aside when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We get a taste of Milton’s art in a stanza that begins by speaking of the Egyptian god, Osiris, and goes on to mention Typhon, a giant monster in Greek myth. Speaking first of Osiris, Milton writes:
He feels from Juda’s land
The dredded Infants hand,
The rayes of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;
Nor all the gods beside,
Longer dare abide,
Nor Tryphon huge ending in snaky twine:
Our Babe to show his Godead true,
Can in his swaddling bands controul the damned crew.
The “Godhead true” of baby Jesus exposes as false the pretensions to godhead of all the pagan deities. Even in “his swaddling bands,” Jesus had the full power to “controul the damned crew.” Milton rightly saw in Christmas the victory of Christ over all His competitors.
Christmas Victory Over Satan
Chief among these competitors, of course, is Satan himself. Milton anticipates the perfect bliss that will come with victory over the devil at the last judgment, but he sees that bliss beginning to be realized in Christ’s nativity:
And then at last our bliss
Full and perfect is,
But now begins: for from this happy day
Th’ old Dragon under ground,
In straiter limits bound,
Not half so far casts his usurped sway,
And wrath to see his Kingdom fail,
Swindges the scaly Horrour of his foulded tail.
Jesus was born to vanquish Satan’s kingdom (“his usurped sway”) and to establish the Kingdom of God. This is the testimony of Scripture. Immediately after His baptism, Jesus confronted Satan in the wilderness and wielded the Word of God as a weapon to resist his temptations. When Jesus cast an unclean spirit out of a man in the Capernaum synagogue, the spirit cried out:
“What have we to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Did you come to destroy us? I know who You are – the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24, NKJV).
When Jesus approached the Gadarene demoniacs, the demons cried out:
“What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?” (Matthew 8:29)
The demons clearly recognized Jesus for who He was, and they knew He had come to rout them. With every exorcism, Jesus displayed His power over Satan and his forces. When some scribes from Jerusalem accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, He responded:
“How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end. No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. And then he will plunder his house.” (Mark 3:23-27, NKJV)
This is exactly what Jesus was doing – binding Satan and plundering his house. During His earthly ministry, Jesus bound Satan for a thousand years so that he would no longer deceive the nations (cf. Revelation 20:1-3). Milton referred to this when he wrote:
Th’ old Dragon under ground,
In straiter limits bound,
Not half so far casts his usurped sway.
The Ongoing Christmas Conquest
With Satan now bound, the gospel is going forth in power, and people from every nation are coming to faith in Christ. We read in Revelation 20 not only of Satan’s binding in history but also of his fate at the end of history:
The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Revelation 20:10, NKJV)
This is where history is headed as Jesus vanquishes the kingdom of Satan and builds the Kingdom of God. This victorious march through history began when Jesus took flesh upon Himself and was born as a baby in Bethlehem. Milton reminded us of the Person and the power of the newborn child in Bethlehem:
Our Babe to shew his Godhead true,
Can in his swaddling bands controul the damned crew.
It is good and right to celebrate the birth of Jesus each year. There is surely a place for nativity scenes and carols about the little baby. But as you see such sights and sing such songs, remember that this baby who looked so helpless was in fact a mighty conqueror born to despoil Satan of his kingdom. He was God the Son come in the flesh to establish an everlasting Kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy (Romans 14:17). He is your great King, and you will honor Him this Christmas as you bow before Him in worship and in wonder.