Evangelists and Canticles

A Festival of Lessons and Carols

Reading and hearing the biblical narratives leading up to the birth of Christ seems countercultural these days. Commercial establishments begin celebrating an “instant” Christmas the day after Halloween. But when there’s no room for Advent celebration, there’s no “prepare the way of the Lord,” no waiting and working for Christ’s kingdom.

When Christmas does arrive, seasonal carols tend to surround Christ’s birth with the coziness of “See amid the winter’s snow,” even though that weather pattern would be unlikely in Bethlehem. The well-known Christmas lullaby suggests “no crying he makes” (which, if it weren’t so silly, might signal an outright denial of Christ’s humanity). Christmas cards and crèches confuse or conflate the appearance of the shepherds with the appearance of the Magi (as does “The First Noel.”) And few remember the slaughter of innocent baby boys in Bethlehem at all.

In sharp contrast to these phenomena, the biblical story of awaiting Christ’s birth and the actual birth narratives of the New Testament evangelists are sober, objective, and without sentimentality.

In this service, worshipers are invited to hear the Scripture passages from four evangelists, surrounded by four canticles, and to join in the hymns and carols for Advent and Christmas. But let’s not forget that Christ’s “being born as a human” was an “emptying of himself,” which ultimately led to his humiliating death, and beyond that to his exaltation, as the early church confessed in its credo quoted by Paul in Philippians 2:6-11.


Processional Hymn: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” LUYH, CH 240, PH 309, PsH 342, TH 162, WR 181


Prayer for Illumination

First Reading: Luke 1:5-17—The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold

Canticle: The Song of Zechariah

For this canticle, consider “Zacharias’ Song” by Paul Ayres. Hymn settings of Zechariah’s canticle are readily available in three different versions of “Blessed Be the God of Israel”: LUYH, PsH 213, SNC 104, SNT 5, and WR 158; each of these has a different text paraphrase and a different tune.

Song: “Prepare the Way, O Zion” PH 13, WR 152

Second Reading: Luke 1:26-38—The Birth of Jesus Foretold

Canticle: The Song of Mary

For this canticle, consider “The Magnificat” by Z. Randall Stroope. Hymn settings of Mary’s canticle are readily available: “Tell Out, My Soul,” LUYH, PsH 478, TH 26, WR 41; “My Soul Gives Glory to My God,” PAS 1042; “My Soul Proclaims with Wonder,” SNC 102, WR 170; and “My Spirit Glorifies the Lord,” PAS 1019, PsH 212, SFL 125 (but preferably to a stronger LM tune such as wareham [PsH 463]). Again, each of these has a different text paraphrase and a different tune.

Third Reading: Luke 2:1-20—The Birth of Jesus

Song: “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” LUYH, CH 277, PH 31/32, PsH 345, TH 203, WR 185

Canticle: The Song of the Angels

For this canticle, consider the Latin setting of the Gloria by György Orbán. Hymn settings of the angels’ song that have both “glory to God” and “peace on earth” are not so readily available, but a couple good choices are “Glory to God,” LUYH, PsH 214; and “Gloria, Gloria, Gloria,” LUYH, SNC 116, WR 195. Though extremely popular, “Angels We Have Heard on High” LUYH features only “glory to God” in its Latin refrain and, regrettably, omits “peace on earth.”

Fourth Reading: Matthew 2:1-18—The Visit of the Magi

Song: “What Child Is This?” LUYH CH 281, PH 53, TH 213, WR 184

Fifth Reading: Revelation 12:1-12—The Woman and the Dragon

Anthem:M. “Fanfare for Michaelmas Day” (Sidney Campbell)

Song: “Mary Nursed Her Son Named Jesus” (see p. 19)

Performance suggestion: have a soloist or choir sing each “stanza,” with everyone on the refrain. Unison, a cappella, but possibly with a few handbells on D and A.

Mary Nursed Her Son Named Jesus

Hymn texts pertaining to John’s vision of the birth of Christ in Revelation are extremely rare, as are any congregational songs that refer to the murder of the Bethlehem babies by King Herod. Our Christmas hymns and carols are good for the Christmas narrative and the sentiments surrounding Christ’s birth, but lack sufficient depth on the meaning of Christ’s incarnation—hence a new carol that incorporates in part the early Christian church’s confession of faith that Paul quotes in Philippians 2.

Mary nursed her son named Jesus

in her arms in Bethlehem,

and she took him to the temple,

God’s house in Jerusalem.

[all] You fulfilled the law, O Savior:

     emptying yourself for us.

Mary held her son named Jesus

on the way to Egypt’s land,

to escape King Herod’s soldiers

who killed babies, sword in hand.

[all] But your time would come, O Savior,

     for obedience unto death.

Mary saw her son named Jesus

as a sword would pierce her soul.

He had died by crucifixion

but arose to make us whole.

[all] Therefore God has giv’n, O Savior,

     you a name above all names.

Mary knew her son named Jesus

truly was God’s only Son.

Though the Devil tried to kill him,

he is seated at God’s throne.

[all] Now on bended knee, O Savior:

     we confess you’re Christ the Lord!

Text: Bert Polman, based on the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, and the early Christian credo in Philippians, © 2012 Bert Polman, admin. Faith Alive Christian Resources. Reprints permitted with a CCLI or OneLicense.net license.

2. 87 87 87

Music: picardy

Sixth Reading: Mark 1:1-8—John the Baptist Prepares the Way

Anthem: “This Is the Record of John” (Orlando Gibbons)

Anthem: “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry” (Claudio Monteverdi)

The Monteverdi setting requires two recorders or oboes. This hymn text can be sung by congregations as in LUYH, PH 10, PsH 327, WR 156, with puer nobis.

Seventh Reading: John 1:1-18—The Word Became Flesh

Anthem: “The Word Was God” (Rosephanye Powell)

Offertory Hymn: “Awake, Awake, and Greet the New Morn” SNC 91, WR 160


Canticle: The Song of Simeon

For Simeon’s canticle, consider the Nunc Dimittis anthem by Geoffrey Burgon. Hymn settings of the Song of Simeon are readily available: “Now May Your Servant, Lord,” LUYH, PAS 1029, PsH 216; and “Lord, Bid Your Servant Go in Peace,” PAS 1051, SNC 292, SNT 11, are among the most common.


Recessional: “Joy to the World!” LUYH, CH 270, PH 40, PsH 337, SFL 137, SWM 94, TH 195, WR 179


Program Cover Idea

When this festival of lessons and carols was performed by Calvin College choirs, we used an image from the Book of Kells on the cover of the program. It shows the traditional symbols for the four evangelists, which come from the prophecies of Ezekiel (1:4) and Revelation (4:2) and have been identified with them throughout church history. Matthew is portrayed as a man (upper left), Mark as a lion (upper right), Luke as a calf (lower left), and John as an eagle (lower right).

Gregory the Great explained the symbols as the four stages of the life of Christ: Christ was a man at birth, a sacrificial ox at death, a lion in his resurrection, and an eagle at his ascension. Others have connected these directly to characteristics of the gospels. Matthew, a man, since his gospel traced Christ’s genealogy; Mark, a lion, with his emphasis on Christ’s royal dignity; Luke, the ox, related to his emphasis on the atonement of Christ; John, the eagle, which reflects his contemplation on the divinity of Christ

Bert Polman was a hymnologist, professor and chair of the music department at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He passed away in July 2013. 

Reformed Worship 105 © September 2012, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.