Blending the Old and New

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: MaryAnn is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Manna for the People: Cultivating Creative Resources for Worship in the Wilderness.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Some holiday traditions, you’re born into.
Others, you stumble your way towards.
And some, you marry into.

My most steadfast Advent tradition falls in the last category. When Robert and I were dating, I visited his family one Christmas. On Christmas Eve morning, we all gathered in the dining room, with sticky rolls on the table and the stereo tuned to NPR, for the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast from Kings College, Cambridge, England.

I was no stranger to choral music, having sung in various ensembles while at Rice University. And for many people, a service of lessons and carols is nothing particularly novel. But I grew up Southern Baptist, and our family had also dabbled in non-denominational services, so the formal simplicity of the service’s liturgy was unfamiliar to me — scripture and song, scripture and song, beginning with Genesis 3 and concluding with John 1, interspersed with music, and capped with a single bidding prayer.

From the first notes of a single chorister singing “Once in Royal David’s City,” I knew I was in for something special. I would later learn that the boys in the choir don’t know ahead of time who will receive the honor of singing that first solo verse, which is heard by millions of people around the world. When the time comes to begin the service, the director lets the congregational chatter subside into a hush, gives the pitch, and points to one child: You.

Years later in seminary I would learn the idea, attributed to Kierkegaard, that the congregation is not the audience of worship, but an active participant; the audience is God. Choosing a chorister on the spur of the moment seems to enflesh this idea that worship is not a performance—not the result of a series of auditions for the “best” voice — but an offering to God.

Now, some twenty-five years later, that boyfriend whose family included me in their Christmas tradition has become my husband, and we have three children of our own. They hang in there pretty well with the broadcast, or at least the first 30-45 minutes, until their attention drifts to books, comics, or other quiet (!) pursuits.

We have continued to celebrate Christmas Eve with Kings College — except when Christmas Eve is on a Sunday, as it is this year. (Our family may still gather around the dining-room table that morning, however — one of the advantages of being a free-range pastor. We’ll see you that night for the candles.)

Like many traditions, the broadcast of the service of lessons and carols is a blend of old and new. The liturgy and choice of readings remain the same, and after more than two decades of tuning in, I am starting to recognize choral pieces that have made multiple appearances. The choir continues to hew to tradition in not allowing female singers, though there is usually at least one female reader of scripture. This traditionalism rankles, of course. But like many things in the church, I make my peace with it for the sake of the deep gifts I receive from it, while still hoping and yearning for change.

Other elements of the listening experience have changed — we now stream the broadcast online, and have been known to text other family members as we listen “together.” It was particularly special to tune in two years ago, when members of Robert’s family were in the congregation in Cambridge, a longtime dream made real.

Many of us who listen each year know the bidding prayer by heart, and feel a special stirring at this line:

Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but on another shore and in a greater light… that number which no man [sic] can number, with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we forevermore are one.

When I first heard those words, I appreciate the line as poetry. Now, I know countless beloved people who have journeyed to that shore, and I remember and give thanks for all of them. The line takes on new resonance year by year.

The blending of old and new feels like the embodiment of NEXT Church. At our best, NEXT Church seeks to translate an old, old story and timeless truth for a new context and culture. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, stodgy in its own way, has nonetheless stood the test of time for many people. Next year will be the 100th anniversary of its first broadcast. I think about a world still reeling from a global war in 1918, listening for strains of hope in the words from Isaiah and Luke, Genesis and John. The broadcast persisted even during another world war, when the location of the service was omitted for security reasons. It persists still, in a world yearning for the promise of Christ’s incarnation to be real once again.

MaryAnn McKibben is a writer, speaker, ministry/leadership coach, and outgoing member of NEXT Church’s strategy team. She has been listening to Christmas music since the week before Thanksgiving without apology.