A little more what

As we’ve put together this year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, we’ve been encouraged to share more about what the festival is, what you can expect, and what you can do to prepare. So here’s my “A little more what” blog to help you navigate those questions.

We describe the background of the original Festival on our website, which talks about the “imaginative approach to worship” in this century-old Christmas Eve service at King’s College in Cambridge, England. When we hosted our first adaptation of the service in my living room four years ago, we’re not sure our guests knew what to expect. We didn’t have a website back then, and also, we weren’t sure either. Hear about the angels and shepherds and manger, sing a few Christmas carols, the usual. And we did that and still do. But as we put the program together, it turned into something different, something more than that.

Our carols are traditional Christmas carols (and you will get to sing), but they encompass also other responses to the passages and the broader story of Christ’s birth at the intersection of art, spirituality, and community.

As we begin planning the Festival, we find it helpful to start with a simple conversation, usually held where beer also can be found. It is a chance to check in with one another: what is going on? what are you reading or listening to these days? what are you excited about? what are you struggling with? The questions start personal and then extend outward to those around us, to our community. From this conversation and others with friends and family and our fellow artist-collaborators, a filter emerges, a theme or two that focuses our attention, guides our thinking, and inspires our art as we set to reading the lessons anew and responding to them.

It was in this place, then, that we found the question at the heart of this year’s Festival: “what happens when you ask the question, ‘what is true?’” This theme, this question, we explore from a number of perspectives, held lovingly in the context of this extended Nativity story.

Inspired by this theme, this “what happens when you ask the question, ‘what is true?’” we offer to you the meditations of our hearts and minds, our spirits and bodies, as we have interpreted it. We acknowledge that the questioning we entertain this year may not be relevant to you in a season of confidence and abundance of faith, or a luxury you can afford in a season of struggle and hardship. We acknowledge that some of the questions raised may be startlingly uncomfortable for some of us. On the other hand, we acknowledge that the traditional texts and Christmas carols, comfortable for some, may be uncomfortable for others.

Our goal is neither comfort nor discomfort, per se, but space. We seek to create a space where each of us may find something new, fresh, timeless, and true in the story of Christ’s birth. Whether you are in a strong and confident place in your faith, whether you are deconstructing that faith, whether you have moved through a deconstruction and reclaimed your faith or some piece of it, whether you have walked away from your faith, whether you come from an altogether different faith or no faith tradition at all, we welcome you into this space, and pray you might find something of beauty and value to you here.

Join us as we explore this question in the context of the Advent season, in the context of anticipation, in the context of me and you and us today.

And while we’re here, I’ll share with you a favorite source of inspiration and rest this time of year: The Advent Project at Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts. This daily Advent devotional uses art, music, and poetry to explore scriptural passages and themes relevant to the season, an approach altogether near and dear to our hearts. Check it out. If nothing I wrote above made any sense, this at least might give you a glimpse of what you can expect on Saturday, December 15 at our fifth annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.


But only a glimpse. A little more what.


A Festival Primer

Each year, as we return to the texts of the festival and reread the lessons, we spend time talking about where we are and what we see and feel in our community. As part of this process, we met with some friends back in October to hear their feedback on past productions and discuss some early concepts for this year. One of them noted that for those who are unfamiliar with what we do, it might be helpful to offer a glimpse into our process and a bit of an explainer on what we’re doing and why we do it.

It sounded like a good idea. So, if you’re new to the festival tradition or if you’ve come in the past and have wished you’d been more prepared, read on.

First, a bit about the tradition in which our service is rooted. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols originated at King’s College in Cambridge. Introduced in 1918, the Christmas Eve service sought “to bring a more imaginative approach to worship.” The lessons are scriptural passages that tell an extended Nativity story: starting in Genesis, on through Isaiah, and into the Gospels. The chosen texts seek to put the birth of Christ into the larger narrative wherein God pursues, and loves, God’s creation. Carols, traditional and contemporary, follow each of these lessons.

Our service is an adaptation of this tradition. We follow the textual format and we feature classic Christmas carols and musical performances, but we also incorporate a number of other creative and artistic expressions that respond to the Nativity story. We see the festival as both a celebration and an opportunity to pause amid the busyness of the season — a respite from the patterns of our city, inviting us to consider the ways in which God, through history and still today, seeks to connect with us.

For those of us who plan the festival each year, we view the process of curating and creating as a gift — a gift to us as we connect with this story creatively and a gift we are honored to share with our friends and community.

The program is often a reflection of the questions we’re working through and the ideas that bring us some hope, and this year’s festival is no different. As Don and I regrouped and began to talk through ideas, we realized that a lot of what we were processing could be traced back to a basic question: What happens when you ask, ‘What is true?’ 

This year’s festival is an exploration of that question, the feelings that surface around it and how we as individuals and in community respond to it. We’ll hear stories of reframing and deconstructing and holding on and letting go. We’ll investigate the meaning that different philosophers and faith traditions have sought to find in the story of Abraham and his son Isaac. We’ll join a poet in imagining how the wisemen may have processed their journey to meet Christ. We’ll sing familiar songs together.

Regardless of what your questions are — or what level of anxiety or comfort you’ve found in them — we hope you’ll join us this year as we consider how our seeking connects us to one another and to a larger tradition of doubt and wonder and hope.




Glimpses of a veiled promise

In the 2016 festival, we explored the idea that while God has promised to set things right — to end war and make everything new — that promise is often veiled by the realities of our world. We spent a lot of time thinking about the ways in which that hope is shadowed, but we also celebrated the glimpses of beauty that we see when the veil is lifted.

We processed some of that through visual art (the header image on this page, painted by Claudia Viscarra, was our vision of that future promise). Here’s how we articulated the idea in our final monologue:

We live in tension between glory and death.

A curse and a promise.

A light and a darkness.

In the garden, on our way to the mountain, in our longings and our losses, as we wait for the day when our world will be made new and as we catch glimpses of beauty and peace that remind us that that is already happening.

This tension that we live in is like a veil — between the world we know and the world God says he is preparing for us. Like Abraham, like Mary, we have received a promise for fullness and deliverance and we trust that we will receive it, but we can’t fully grasp what that means. Our imaginations are stifled. Our understanding is limited. Our sin has distorted our vision.

The patterns of our world consume us.

But it’s in those ordinary moments of limited sight
Of loss and sadness, frustration and confusion,
doubt that the promised peace and glory are even possible,
that God shows up and helps us see.

He lifts the veil.

And as he did for Abraham and Mary, for the wisemen and the shepherds — he uses our own limitations, our humanity, to speak to us and reveal glimpses of his glory.

In the birth of Jesus, we see the promise become flesh. We see God become one of us in order to reveal himself to us. Just as Jesus’ own people didn’t accept him as the savior they’d been waiting for, we think our imaginations, our own rough sketches of the world as we think it should be are what we’re moving toward. We think we know what the promise looks like.

Today, the good news is that the promise is better than anything we could dream up.

“The former things will not be remembered, they will not come to mind.”

“No more death or mourning or crying or pain.”

“A hope and a future.”

And so as we celebrate the glimpses that point us toward the true light, as we ask God for healing and justice now, here on Earth, we also celebrate the beauty of the promise we don’t yet know — the incomprehensible kingdom that is to come.

Written by Courtney Albon.

Lesson 5, 2016: Expecting

Lesson 5, Luke 1:26-38: Mary is visited by the angel of the Lord and told that she will give birth to a son and that this son will be called Son of the Most High. She replies, “I am the Lord’s servant.


I wanted to be found faithful

400 years.

400 years of righteous-living, Sabbath-observing, temple-going days where we clung to generations-old words.

I knew a Messiah was coming.
In my head, in my hands, in my legs, I knew.

In the way I lived, the way I worked
The way I was
Always seeming as if the Messiah could be coming
Almost in pre-programmed motions
Moving through each day in a rhythm and routine, but not really expecting.

Well, now I am.

Expecting this Messiah, this baby.

I found favor?
I found favor in the Lord’s eyes- who am I?
I’m not a king with an army, a boy with a sling, or a prophet with a soaked-down offering

My altar – my swelling belly
My sacrifice – my growing body

Instead of the shriek of a lamb slain,
There will be me, screaming in labor pains.
No blood stains on a previously perfect white, wool offering
Just me, soul-glorifying, pushing and crying new life, new hope, new order into being.

I knew this day was coming.
In my head, in my hands, in my legs

And now I feel that Day kicking.
His head, his hands, his legs, pressed up against my rib cage.

I knew this day was coming.

But now I am expecting.

For out of you will come a ruler

Written by Chelsea Geyer

Lesson 7, 2016: A Meditation

Seventh Lesson – Luke 2:8-16
The shepherds go to the manger.

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.”

A Meditation:

Lesson 7 Meditation (2) from Chelsea Geyer on Vimeo.

Written and read by Chelsea Geyer
Music by Don Atkins
With help from Courtney Albon

At the outset

giving a glimpse of what we’re after and who we are

When we hosted our first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in December of 2014, we had about 35 friends show up in my living room. We think they were expecting to come hear the nativity story read aloud and maybe sing some Christmas carols.

And they did. But the Festival offers a bit more than that, too. Even for those already familiar with the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, we have adapted the format to expand on the original mission of bringing a “more imaginative approach to worship.”  We still follow each Lesson with a Carol, and we use the same scriptural passages from the original Festival at King’s College, Cambridge. But our Carols, our responses to the Lessons, might be a poem, a painting, spoken word, or projections on a screen. More on this in future posts.

So for now, at the outset of our site and blog, we plan to share a few things with you. We might post a bit more about the history of the Festival, or maybe a bit about what’s going through our minds as we plan this year. We also hope to share some of the Carols from previous Festivals–giving a glimpse of what we’re after and who we are. Especially in the forthcoming season of Advent, there’s something about old and new: old stories, new responses, timeless truths in time-bound tomes, ancient exhalations of a living God. We hope these posts and pieces might inspire a spirit of reflection and a well of cheer as we await, with you, the birth of Christ.

In the cool of the day

from the 2016 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

From the 2016 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, “In the Cool of the Day” followed the reading of the First Lesson: Genesis 3:1-19. In the First Lesson, we read of the fall of man. As God approaches Adam and Eve, in the cool of the day, He finds them hiding, afraid.


The cool of the day, I made
The cool, and the day. 
In step with time, made time, I move.
Flowing gently, hems of robes.  Grass lays down,
Before I walk over it.
“Get up” I say. “Rise.”

Sunrise.  Will rise, has risen
The cool, and the day.
Tops of trees flower and glisten.
Floating freely, seeds of rose.  Buds burst wide
Before I walk up to them.
“Be sweet,” I say. “Stay.”

Stay.  Indwell, brilliant green leaves
The cool, and the day.
White-washing waves of calm crest.
Flowering richly, apple blossoms.  Fruits drop dew,
Before I walk near to them.
“Be wise,” I say.  “Fall.”

Fall.  In a well of belong.
The cool, and the day.
Tufts of mist dampen, soften.
Rustling warmly, the willow.  Leaves of tears,
Before I walk among them.
“Weep long,” I say.  “Laugh.”

Laugh.  Laugh!  My plans, I’ve told you,
The cool, and the day.
Scrolls of parchment-earth unfold.
Reaping truly, plows write story.  Rods of words
Before I breathe into them
“Hold on,” I say.

Hold, the cool.  Hold, the day.  Hold…Hold…Hold…
Rages of grieving
Creation deceiving
Upending my Name
Fomenting your Shame
You’re spurning, I’m burning
What was, not returning
A paradise lost, you lost.  I… lost.

Before, I walked with you.
In the cool of the day.

Written by Don Atkins