By Lou Baldwin
Special to the CS&T

WARRINGTON – It’s called Lessons and Carols, and it has become an Advent tradition at St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, Warrington. It really has its roots as an Anglican Christmas Eve pageant first presented in merry old England back in 1880.

According to the story, Edward White Benson, Bishop of Truro in Cornwall (later Archbishop of Canterbury), was concerned that some members of his flock were a tad too merry at Christmastide. He came up with a pageant for Christmas Eve, partly to keep the men out of the pubs on the eve of Christ’s birth. He devised a program that tells the Redemption story from the fall of Adam and Eve to the birth of the Savior. It’s done mostly through nine Scripture readings interspersed with hymns and carols.

The idea was picked up by others, most famously by the Choir of Kings College in Cambridge, England, which broadcasts its Festival of Lessons and Carols to millions throughout the world each Christmas Eve.

As adapted at St. Robert, it is presented in mid-Advent; this year on Dec. 6, the feast of St. Nicholas. It involves the congregation, the parish choirs and children of the parish who represent key figures in the story through tableaux.

“We do it with a twist,” said Immaculate Heart Sister Roberta, the parish’s director of religious education.

Because it is presented during Advent, not Christmas Eve, the four traditional Advent candles are incorporated into the presentation of, in this case, 10 Scripture lessons. Also because it is not yet Christmas, it is not called a festival, and there is no representation of the Infant Jesus other than a symbolic white candle. The readings and hymn selections focus on the coming of Christ, not His actual birth. “The hymns and carols match the readings,” Sister Roberta said.

At the appropriate moments in the ceremony four students chosen from the upper grades representing Isaiah, the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph and St. John the Baptist each come to the front of the church bearing the candles.

Toward the end younger children representing angels, shepherds and the Magi are seen approaching from a distance, but not yet arriving at the central tableau because it is still Advent, Sister Roberta explained.

At the end of the program each member of the congregation is invited to take a white candle home as their own representation of Jesus.

“Our Lessons and Carols Program allows our parishioners another avenue of spiritual preparation anticipating the great feast of the birth of our Savior,” Sister Roberta said.

“It’s nice to have an event focused on Advent starting with Adam and Eve working up to the birth of Christ,” said David Westawski, parish music director.

“I’m from upstate, and we did Lessons and Carols there. It’s one of my favorite events,” he said. “It’s very prayerful and emphasizes the real reason for the season.”

Just as the readings had a distinct Advent flavor so did the hymns chosen by Westawski and Sister Roberta and sung by the adult choir, the teen ensemble and the congregation. Among them were “On Jordan’s Bank,” “People Look East,” “Mary Did You Know?” and “Awesome God.”

Sue Bauer, who attends this program annually, had special reason this year. Her daughter, Olivia, represented Mary in the tableau and her son, Eric, represented Isaiah. Joseph was represented by Joseph Bolton and John was represented by James Kolody.

“It’s a nice night and something different than the commercialism of the season. It gets people ready for Christmas and tells how it came to be,” Bauer said.

Denise Visco, a member of the adult choir, finds the music as well as the prayers and readings inspiring.

“It’s well thought out and brings us all together to focus on the real meaning of Christmas, which is not just Dec. 25,” she said. “It’s about preparation, and including the children in it gives them a hands-on explanation of the season.”

The Festival of Lessons and Carols will also be presented at St. Hilary of Poitiers Parish, Rydal, at 7 p.m. Dec. 10.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.