Edition of 'Lessons and Carols' tops Christmas offerings

Sunday, December 12, 2004

It's difficult for those living in the era of the "war on terror" to imagine what the devastation of World War I meant to Great Britain.

Some 900,000 citizens died in that conflict, triple the national toll in World War II. At King's College of Cambridge University alone, a third of the 200-plus students who went off to fight never returned and in all, 199 former King's men died.

With that in mind, consider the emotional impact of the opening prayer for the Christmas Eve liturgy at the King's chapel, first uttered in 1919:

"Let us also remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which none can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh: And let us pray that we may be counted among that communion of saints."

Again this year, that prayer will be recited during the college's celebrated Dec. 24 festival of Bible lessons, carols and choral anthems.

The service's sounds have become a beloved part of Christmas for multitudes worldwide through shortwave broadcasts by the British Broadcasting Corp. beginning in 1928 and, since 1978, public radio broadcasts across the United States.

Not to be missed by all within earshot, this year's American Public Media live broadcast is scheduled for 10 a.m. Eastern time Dec. 24, with some stations airing repeats on Christmas Day.

The rite has inspired a splendid gift choice to accompany Christmas celebrations.

American editor William Pearson Edwards put the service text and related materials into sumptuous book form as "Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols" (Universe, $27.50), with an enclosed CD recording of a previous year's service.

The book contains the traditional liturgy; the history of the chapel and carol singing; the full verses of 35 carols; and tastefully chosen color artwork.

The service originated in 1918 with the Rev. Eric Milner-White, who had returned to his campus chaplain's post after four years with the army on the western front. He based the rite on an 1880 predecessor conceived by Bishop Edward White Benson, later Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the world's Anglicans.

The haunting sound of the broadcasts and CD results from the soaring chapel, 300 feet long but a mere 40 feet wide. King Henry VI designed the building and laid the cornerstone in 1446.

As Henry dictated, to this day the choir consists of 16 boys and 14 men (Cambridge undergraduates). The storied service begins with an almost inaudible boy chorister singing a lovely 1848 hymn written for children:

"Once in royal David's city

"Stood a lowly cattle shed,

"Where a mother laid her baby

"In a manger for his bed:

"Mary was that mother mild,

"Jesus Christ her little child. ..."

Adding to the enchantment of that moment, three boys stand at the front of the processional line, not knowing which of them will be chosen by the conductor as soloist until the very start of worship.

Among other books worth consideration for Christmas gift-giving are three that, alas, are in paperback rather than more handsome hardcover editions which would be far preferable for the occasion.

"The Old Testament Through 100 Masterpieces of Art" and "The New Testament Through 100 Masterpieces of Art" are each $19.95, from Merrell. The titles announce the contents. Each well-chosen painting is accompanied by a brief comment from French author Regis Debray about the scriptural story and how it is depicted in great art. The Nativity paintings in the New Testament volume are the work of such worthies as Bruegel, Delacroix, Tintoretto and da Vinci.

The third paperback is a little $9.95 item from HarperSanFrancisco, a reprint of the late journalist Jim Bishop's charming 1959 classic "The Day Christ Was Born." He fleshed out the spare accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke with readable research on the customs and culture in the days upon which our civilization and our very calendars turn.


On the Net:

King's College festival: http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/chapel/ninele...

U.S. broadcast: http://www.americanpublicmedia.us/progra...

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