For many, this service is “the” traditional worship experience of the Christmas season, despite the fact that it is a relative infant in this history of the Anglican tradition as its most direct origins are found in the late 19th century.
The service is modeled on the very famous version sung in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, England annually. This “original” version of the service was instituted at King’s by Eric Milner-White for Christmas Eve of 1918. Minor changes were adopted in 1919, after which the basic structure of the service has remained constant. Milner-White gleaned the idea for the King’s service from Edward White Benson, who designed a similar service for Christmas Eve at Truro Cathedral in 1880. This service incorporated nine lessons read by the various officers of the Church in succession “from chorister through bishop.” Truly a service “of the people,” it has found almost sensational popularity throughout the world, bridging the divide of culture and creed.
In this service’s incarnation at the Redeemer, the story of the fall of man through promised redemption through the Christ-Child, is recounted with readings from the 1611 King James’ Version of the Bible, and various carols, choral and organ music.
Since its inception, the service has always begun with a solo voice singing the first verse of “Once in royal David’s city”, as it is at the Redeemer. Then begins the successive dialogue of readings and music, which renew the ancient story of the coming of the Christ-Child.
The sequence of readings and main carols (“Once in royal David’s city”, “O come, all ye faithful” and “Hark! the herald angels sing”) remain a constant, providing the pillars around which the rest of the music is woven. Omitting a sermon, it is the various works of music that expound upon the readings on which they are based, that form their own kind of homily, transporting the worshiper on a new journey through the ancient story.
- Michael S. Murray, Director of Music