The celebration of nine lessons

The St John’s Cathedral, Central, HK
No machine-readable author provided. CH6041 assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

The celebration of nine lessons and carols was originally devised by the then Bishop of Truro as a means of getting people out of drinking houses and into church on the evening of Christmas Eve. There. That’s reduced the service to a pragmatic response to a problem rather than the something ethereal and beautiful which we think of these days.

The format is almost unchanged over the years, particularly since the festival became associated with Kings College Cambridge around the end of the First World War. There is very little liturgy and an almost standard nine lessons. The lessons run from Eve and the forbidden apple in the  garden of Eden at the start of the old testament via the prophets, notably Isaiah, to the birth of Christ at the start of the New Testament. Half the bible in an hour and a half. Liberally interspersed are carols known to and for the congregation to sing and various choral interjections by way of anthems or lesser known carols.

The Anglica Cathedral Church of St. John, Hong Kong, dates back to the early days of colonialism. It is impressive rather than grand and has a degree of homeliness to it. I like walking into it. The cathedral site is modest by British standards but there is some garden outside and office buildings and a shop and meeting room. The site is surrounded – hemmed in by – huge towers such as that of Bank of China, Standard Chartered and HSBC. The moneylenders surrounding the temple, then,  if not in it. Also close by are government buildings old and new.

This year’s nine lessons service starts at 5p.m. in candlelight. A well executed solo of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ leads the procession of choir and clergy. The spoken introduction following well describes the anticipation of Christmas but also our reflection on past Christmases – the reminder to remember those ‘upon another shore’ remains moving.

And then away though ancient carols littered with Latin and familiar tunes and words of gentlemen being merry, clear midnights and bleak midwinters. The last of these something of a curio since Hong Kong has never recorded a fall of snow, let alone snow on snow.

The readings are in Mandarin, Cantonese and Tagalog as well as English, reflecting the busy nature of the Cathedral in serving Hong Kong’s residents. The cathedral typically holds six services on a Sunday in the four different languages. Thankfully, these worshippers are referred to as different ‘congregations’ rather than communities.

Carols by William Byrd from the late 1500s and from the 2010s by Sarah Quartel follow. The latter is a beautiful very recent setting of the old words ‘This endris night’ by a young Canadian choral music composer. A name new to me and demonstrating admirable talent.

Back to the familiar of shepherds watching, ye faithful coming and finally, with glory to the new born King, the choir recesses.

The cathedral, full and with a sprinkling of people standing outside, gives good attention to the Organ Voluntary, a variation on In Dulci Jubilo by Bach, and a warm round of applause follows its conclusion. This being Hong Kong, selfies with the Bishop follow next to the crib. And then outside for mulled wine and mince pies in the garden. This is a warm social gathering of locals, expats and visitors. Standing looking pretty well straight up at the surrounding brightly lit skyscrapers, notably Bank of China, is an experience in itself.

Musically the cathedral has high standards and this was a fine performance but the delivery of the word is I think the key to this service – it is after all lessons and carols, not the other way round. And the tone of stillness, of quiet joy, set by the officiant in the introduction to the service was profound.

Back outside, this Hong Kong/British dual national contemplated the incongruity of mulled wine in Hong Kong. Outside in twenty degree heat. Of mince pies from Marks and Spencer. And of more Latin, more tradition, than one would often now get from an Anglican church in England. Happy Christmas

Featured image: Acred99, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

© Hongkonger 2023