Filling the church with carols

Ben Hill hopes Christmas festival will become a growing tradition for his parish

The organ resonated around the church and up into its atrium, as voices raised and sang the words of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’: “Angels and archangels, they have gathered there, cherubim and seraphim, thronged the air. Only his Mother, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss.”

This lesser known but powerfully melodic song on the coming of Christ at Christmas was one among many for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, celebrated for the fourth time in a row at Holy Family Catholic Church in Grimshaw on Dec. 11th. Persons from around the area joined to sing in these carols and share in the readings reflecting the true meaning of Christmas.

The young man who played Holy Family’s resounding organ and spearheaded this growing parish tradition is Ben Hill. He was inspired to bring this festival to his home parish as a way to gather all Christian peoples of Grimshaw and surrounding communities together at the sacred time of Christmas.

“I wanted to have a community event where all Christian peoples, regardless of what denomination or tradition they belonged to, could come together and gather for Christmas carols and celebrate this time in an ecumenical way, and this seemed the best way to do that,” he said.

Christians from church communties in Grimshaw, Whitelaw and Peace River made it for this past year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols began in the late 19th century in England, as a service of Christian worship to prepare faithful for the Christmas season. Interspersed between each carol are readings of Scriptural passages or reflections related to the Christmas season. The readings retell the story of the fall of humanity in the Book of Genesis, the prophecies of the coming messiah in the Old Testament, and the fulfillment of God’s Messianic promises in the coming of Jesus Christ in the Gospels.

The festival began at a time when carols were generally excluded from worship services, and were seen as more appropriate to secular environments – such as singing in people’s homes or on public streets. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was an early attempt to try and incorporate Christmas carols within the Church itself.

Check out this video recap from this year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Holy Family Church.

“It began at a time where you could not sing a lot of the vernacular Christmas carols at church, especially with the Mass still being in Latin,” Hill added.

By the early 20th century, the Nine Lessons & Carols festival spread further and further in both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches across England.

It was picked up by King’s College in Cambridge in 1918 as part of their Christmas Eve services, and from there the service began to be broadcasted each year by the BBC. These broadcasted showings of the festival began in 1928.

“It was King’s College that made it famous and they still broadcast it to this day,” said Hill. “There’s a few rules that guide the service – like the first song has to be ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, and the final lesson is read by the highest-ranking prelate in attendance. Outside of that, the songs and the readings can vary.”

Holy Family Catholic Church parishioner Ben Hill initiated the effort to bring the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols to his home church in Grimshaw.

Ben first came across the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in a version put on by the St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, Illinois, who livestream many of their services and liturgies. He was drawn particularly to its blend of music and spirituality.

“I’m a musician, so I loved that in this service there is a ton of music in it. And it has also that spiritual aspect that we as Catholics like to incorporate into all things. So to me it had the best of both worlds, and it incorporated them into one unified event for Christmas.”

He began to do more research into the history of the festival, and was soon envisioning it as something that could be implemented and celebrated in his home parish. In 2019 he spoke with Fr. Feroz Fernandes, the parish priest in Grimshaw at that time, and got permission to prepare a version for Holy Family Church.

The “lessons” in between each carol were largely Scripture readings reflecting the coming of Christmas.

This is only an excerpt. Read the full story in the January-February 2023 edition of Northern Light