PC(USA) online Christmas event to draw inspiration from century-old service

Organizers look to the past to create a worship service for the present

by Rick Jones | Office of the General Assembly

Participants in the 2020 Virtual Christmas Service include (L to R) So Jung Kim, Gillian Hollis, David Gambrell and Flor Vélez-Díaz. (Photo by Randy Hobson)

LOUISVILLE — Public health officials urge people to wear masks. Workplaces and businesses adjust hours to prevent crowding. Several cities impose quarantines or ban public gatherings. This sounds like something people see and hear as they go online or watch the news every night, but this was December 1918 when the world struggled with the impact of a global flu pandemic.

The world of 1918 saw a lot of what people are seeing today: overwhelmed hospitals and morgues, countless deaths. But on Christmas Eve of that year, worshipers gathered at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England for the first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

“For more than a century this service has continued — becoming a beloved and much-anticipated Christmas tradition. Since the 1930s the service has been broadcast internationally by the BBC. People around the world and in many different Christian denominations have adopted and adapted this tradition in the worship of their own congregations,” said the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, associate for Worship in the Office of Theology and Worship for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “The latest edition of the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship (WJKP, 2018), published in the centennial year of the King’s College festival, includes a Service of Lessons and Carols patterned after the 1918 liturgy.”

Gambrell and colleagues in the PC(USA) national offices, including Dr. William McConnell, Mission Engagement Advisor and music collaborator, have been working for weeks to pull together an online Christmas service.

“The model of the Lessons and Carols liturgy seemed like a fitting order of worship in the midst of our current pandemic. The heart of the service is simply the story of Christmas — God coming to us and dwelling among us in Jesus, a fragile human child in a world fraught with trouble,” Gambrell said. “At a time when beloved church and family traditions have been upended, it seems appropriate to focus on this familiar story at the center of our faith — a story of hope and joy for a time of grief and fear.”

Gambrell adds that it was important that this service reflect the “vibrancy and vitality” of this denomination in this time and place.

“For that reason, we wanted to feature the participation of Presbyterians from a variety of cultural traditions, speaking the good news in many languages. We also wanted to use music that would evoke the diversity and depth of Reformed worship in the United States and around the world,” he said. “The resulting service — while still consisting of a series of nine lessons and carols — features some different passages of Scripture and different musical selections, in keeping with our contemporary context.”

The service is a collaboration among two dozen employees and friends of the national offices of the PC(USA). Musical selections include classic Christmas carols, African American spirituals, and songs originating from Spanish- and Korean-speaking communities of faith.

“The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), is preaching, while a prayer from the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, connects the themes of Christmas with the Matthew 25 vision of service to people who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick or in prison,” said Gambrell.

Resources include:

  • Christmas readings and songs in a variety of languages, styles and traditions
  • Captions in English, Korean, and Spanish
  • Downloadable orders of worship in English, Korean, and Spanish.

Church leaders and members are welcome and encouraged to use the resources in a variety of ways, depending on what is most appropriate and helpful in a particular context:

  • Presenting the video in its entirety as the congregation’s service of worship on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, one of the two Sundays of Christmas (December 27, January 3), Epiphany (January 6), or at some other point in the Christmas season
  • Using excerpts from the service within another congregational event — for instance, highlighting the message from the Stated Clerk, the readings from the Co-Moderators, or the readings and songs from staff in the national offices of the PC(USA)
  • As a devotional offering for members seeking additional spiritual enrichment during the Christmas season
  • As an educational opportunity for worship committees, church musicians, educators, or pastors seeking new ideas for Christmas
  • As a resource for congregations without pastoral and/or musical leadership at this time
  • As a contingency plan in situations where illness or weather disrupt other worship arrangements.

The online service will be posted here. To access the resources for this service, click here.

The Christmas service will include Spanish and Korean subtitles by the end of the day on Wednesday, December 23, for use in congregations where those languages are spoken.


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