Carols in church : a partial guide

Carol, carol gaily

Each year I rummage through my (large and still growing) collection of carol books, to check everything will be ready in time, and I get distracted by the Oxford Book of Carols‘ insistence on definitions and distinctions, as it goes into detail which most people presumably just skip over; but it is all actually fascinating stuff, and written by great men (then) working at the coalface. Section 2,page xv, starts with a truth we can all acknowledge : ‘The selection of carols is not so easy a task as perhaps might be imagined’. I think every Church musician would say a heartfelt Amen to that.

Youths singing
singing with warmth and colour
Is it a carol? No, it’s a hymn

Even defining a carol is difficult. Some people suggest that it must be a song also for dancing; it must be of a certain age; it must be popular rather than literary; it must have definite roots of place, and so on. The problem is that everyone can think of exceptions to every rule. Much ink has been spilt over the distinction between carols and hymns, but I’m not sure that it is a useful distinction (if it ever was), especially now when most parishes have only one music book which has to cover everything, and all the parish hymn books I can think of have had carols in for years.

How many carols can dance on the head of a pin?
Saint Joseph with tree
Same legend, different tree; this is a palm tree, pretending to be the cherry tree in The Cherry Tree carol

We are blessed with a large number of carols (and hymns) in the English-speaking church, and I find the problem every year is getting as many as possible into the festive season. You can’t sing carols before the end of Advent, and you are unlikely to sing them beyond Candlemas; so that’s not so many Sundays when you can plan to sing them, though there are also some extra feastdays during this period (St. Stephen, and Mary the Mother of God, among others). You need to include particular favourites and requests (where possible) and cover as many groups of people as you can (small children who only know Away in a Manger, older people who feel cheated if you don’t include Adeste fideles, choir members who love singing Ding dong merrily, and my husband who will settle for either Good King Wenceslas or It came upon the midnight clear, but will be very upset if we don’t sing at least one of them).

Most people will come to only one of the Christmas Masses (up to four options, in many parishes), and they will all want to hear or preferably sing their favourite carols. But you need a bit of variety for the choir, and as I said, there is a lot of wonderful material. Squaring that circle is difficult.

Welcome, Yule, but not here, or just at the moment
Banquet with sheep on table
singing and banqueting at the same time

There’s a large group of carols which I don’t think you can sing in church, and those are the ones which stress the Yule factor rather than anything religious. This can be diplomatically difficult, because some people will disagree with your classification. We wish you a merry Christmas is a good example, and various Wassail carols; The boar’s head in hand bring I starts like one of these, but has holy words later, and the same goes for I saw three ships, or Past three o’clock. That shows how tricky it can be, and I suspect that carol ‘services’ were invented partly to have the possibility of blurring the line. These are great carols for carol singing, it’s just difficult to fit them properly into one of the Christmas Masses. But every family Christmas needs a sing-song, partly for its nuisance factor as well for the sake of tradition; and of course, if you go out carol singing, you sing anything that will bring the money in, and the Yule carols are great for that.

Carols for other times of year

I’m not including in this discussion any of the ‘carols’ for different times of the year, like the Easter carols, the May carols, and carols from other parts of the Bible narratives (Job, Jacob, the Passion narratives, parables). I did say it was only a ‘partial’ guide. I’m thinking about Christmas carols as part of the liturgy over the Christmas season, even though many of the others are great carols; and even here, there is an exception, because many people love the Coventry carol (Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child) and would be sad not to include it, but the massacre of the innocents must be some time after the birth of Jesus, or Herod would not have included all babies under two.

Angel choir
angel choirs enabling a singalong
Sweet singing in the quire

Our church, like many others, has a half-hour of carols before Midnight Mass starts. We try to keep the programme varied, but we also keep to the holy carols rather than the secular, just because it feels appropriate in church.  And it’s before Midnight Mass, even if not by much, so we are still careful not to sing the most intensely triumphant ones. It helps to imagine the running order  as  telling a story, so we start gently with Once in Royal. That ‘Once’ is a clear sign that the story starts here, and you never need to apologise for old favourites at Christmas. We use Come, come, come to the manger for the procession to the crib, and we sing Adeste fideles as the first hymn of the Mass proper. There is plenty of room for others.  We keep the gentle ones for Communion (Silent Night on Christmas night, Away in a Manger on Christmas Day, when there are more children). Hark the Herald is always our last hymn at the end of Mass, for several reasons. You have to have it because for many people it is a crucial element of Christmas, but the words are a celebration of what has just happened, rather than setting the scene like (say) O little town of Bethlehem. From a practical choir point of view, Hark the Herald is loud and high, even higher with the descant, and your sopranos will be grateful if that’s the last thing they have to sing (until the next day, at least).

Even more choices

You have to have some of the old carols, but for some people that means Victorian, whereas others want mediaeval. If you want something new to your choir and congregation, there are lovely Czech and Polish carols, as well as the more familiar French and German ones. You can adapt the wedding outfit couplet to carols too: something old, something new, something borrowed and instead of ‘blue’, I’d go for ‘snew’, because there are lots of great carols with snow in : In the bleak midwinter, See amid the winter’s snow, Good King Wenceslas, and add your own. Myself, I’m very partial to the macaronic German carols, where there are Latin lines mixed into the words : In dulci jubilo, Quem pastores, Unto us a boy is born, Angelus ad virginem, but I think this is because they have such wonderful tunes. The French gave us the carols with the long Gloria in the chorus, which everyone remembers from school (Angels we have heard in heaven, Ding dong merrily).

carols are for dancing as well as singing
Get everyone singing

There are so many to choose from. Personally I’m not keen on the more operatic ones designed for soloists (O holy night) or an accomplished choir (Carol of the Bells, sorry, dear Ukrainians), or arranged so that the congregation can’t join in (several of the versions in Carols for Choirs). For many people, Christmas is the one time they come to church and know the tunes, and even some of the words, and I think we should lean into this at our Christmas Masses. Sing something trickier or more unfamiliar at Communion, while people are away from the pews, but give them lots of chances to feel part of a singing congregation, because that is so special at Christmas.

Don’t forget David
David touching tongue
David , to whom we owe so much

And sing the psalm, because the psalms for the Christmas season are exciting and jubilant, and should be sung. You will find suggested tunes for the Psalms and the Alleluias on our website  and you can read more about my Christmas music  in general if you would like.   From lullabies to jolly celebrations, songs are one of the best ways to join in the Christmas festivities. And even if you don’t feel happy when you start, with so much still to do, after a carol or two, you will indeed feel merry like Christmas.

©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The early Church, from fear to courage: Eastertide B

First, an apology… Year A escaped me

I managed to miss writing about the narrative of the Eastertide Sundays in Year A last year, because we were all shell-shocked by the pandemic and locked down with no music.  I empathised much more with the fearful apostles after the Ascension, so I wrote about that, but we have worked through into calmer waters (even if we still aren’t allowed to sing in many churches), so I’m determined at least to have a look at the Eastertide Sundays events for Year B, and A will have to wait until it comes around again.

Christ leaving tomb
the Resurrection…and what happened next
Eastertide Year C

When I wrote about the story in the Eastertide Sundays for Year C, it was because I was intrigued to see how the focus moved from Jesus as the usual centre of the action at the Gospel reading, to what was happening with the early Church, headless and frightened, in the First Reading. Usually our first readings are from the Old Testament, to give deep historical context, but at Eastertide they are from Acts, the account of the development of the early Church, written by Luke.  Usually the Gospel gives us the main story for the liturgy on any given Sunday, but in the Sundays after Easter, time stands still for the Gospels (or even goes backwards) because we are hearing parts of Jesus’ teaching and talkings from earlier periods of the narrative.  The action (at least from the point of view of Jesus’ story) cannot move on until the Ascension.

Second Sunday of Easter, and Thomas
A tender moment : doubt no longer

The first Sunday after Easter, aka the Second Sunday of Easter, is the story of Thomas, an apostle often unfairly criticised.  I’ve talked about him before, so I won’t go into it again here.  His story and its lesson for us all is so important that all three liturgical years are the same.  After this Sunday, though, the Lectionary Years diverge, but not in the usual way by choosing a Gospel writer and following him (Year A : Matthew, Year B : Mark, Year C : Luke).  Most of the Gospels for Eastertide in all three years are from John; but not all.  They are not chronological; they have been selected.

Overview, Year B Eastertide Readings

The First Reading over Eastertide, for all three years, comes from Acts, because the story is now about the early Church, as I explained when discussing Year C, but different sections of Acts come into focus.  The Second Readings differ considerably; Year C takes them all from Revelation, Year A from Peter’s first letter, and Year B takes all its Second Readings from the first letter of John.  In Year B, the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter is the aftermath of the trip to Emmaus (the account of the encounter itself is in Year A), the Fourth Sunday is the Good Shepherd, the Fifth is I am the vine, and the Sixth is what sounds like Jesus’ final charge to the apostles, an envoi of sorts, though in fact it’s from chapter 15 of John’s Gospel rather than later.  As I said discussing Year C, the time in the Gospel readings can go forwards and back over Eastertide, because the linear onward progression has shifted to Acts.  All these B Gospels are from John except Third Sunday, which is from Luke, because he is the only evangelist who gives us the Emmaus story.

Second Sunday of Easter B

The First Reading is from Acts 4, a simple statement of how things were done among the community of believers in the early Church, with everyone sharing and helping each other, and the apostles spreading the word to great effect.  By now, the transformation has taken place; there is a sizeable group of believers, they have become ‘the early Church’, and this is how they are behaving.  All three First Readings (Years A, B and C) have this same message of reassurance, even though they come from different chapters of Acts.  After the tragedy of Holy Week and the surprise and joy of Easter Sunday, here is the pattern for the way ahead being worked out, by a group of converts and believers, just like us.  We stay with the great Easter psalm (117/118), with only minor variations, because the Octave of Easter is like an echo, reverberating the same message.  The Second Reading, from the first letter of St John, gives us the tools to live like the early Church: love, obedience to God, and the Holy Spirit.  The Gospel is Thomas’ encounter with Jesus.

Third Sunday of Easter B : first reading

We start in early Acts, earlier in fact than the previous week, with a speech from Peter, in his new role as leader of the Church.  It sounds in our First Reading as though he is trying to pick a fight, but this is due to slightly awkward editing.   This speech follows the healing of the lame man at the gate called Beautiful, when Peter says ‘Silver and gold have I none, but what I have, I give you’.  The lame man walks and leaps and praises God, now that his legs and feet can support him, and a crowd gathers. 

healing the lame man at the gate called Beautiful

Peter addresses the crowd, ‘Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this?’  and goes on to explain that the healing is nothing to do with Peter and John, but is all the work of (their own) God to glorify his servant Jesus.  He encapsulates the whole story with commendable brevity, and then clarifies that it is not their fault that they killed Jesus because they did not know what they were doing; so now they can repent and turn to God.  Peter turns all the crowd’s assumptions upside-down, he accuses them of a dreadful act, the murder of God’s representative, and then shows them how to clear matters up – all in a few lines.  It is masterly.  Peter has been transformed since Pentecost. He is now a leader, eloquent, confident, convincing, and completely fearless.

…the psalm and second reading

This same confident touch is echoed in the choice of psalm, the simple and beautiful Psalm 4, which reinforces many of Peter’s points : God’s justice, his favour for the ones he loves, God as the source of all happiness and security.  The second reading is again simple and confident, ‘I am writing this to stop you sinning, but if anyone should sin, we have our advocate with the Father’, so again, we have what looks like a condemnation, but again immediately we have the promise of pardon.

…the Gospel : Emmaus, main account in Year A
so he went in to stay with them (Lk 24)

On the corresponding Sunday in Year A, we have the story of Emmaus, where Jesus falls in with two disciples on the road, and they fail to recognise him. He explains to them how his own death (and subsequent entry into glory) was foretold in the scriptures from Moses onwards.  We aren’t given all of Jesus’ words, but it sounds to me as though he also defends the testimony of the women at the tomb, which the apostles had discounted, as he reproaches them for being ‘foolish […] and slow of heart to believe’ (Lk  24.25).  They prevail upon the unknown traveller to stay with them, and they realise who he is when he shares the bread among them at dinnertime.  Then he disappears.

Year B : Emmaus 2.0

This year (B), what we have is the next stage of the story.  To set the scene, because these are verses of Luke’s account which are not included in our Gospel reading, the two minor disciples, only one of whom even gets a name (Cleopas), have come rushing back to the Upper Room in Jerusalem, even though it is already late, and they have been walking all day.   They find the apostles ‘and those who were with them’, which I am taking as those faithful and long-suffering women, and they all exchange their exciting news.   The atmosphere has been transformed.  You can almost hear the buzzing excitement as Cleopas and his friend (his wife?) tell their story, and the others tell them that the Lord ‘has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’  We never hear anything else about that encounter, but we can hear that the group is beginning to dare to believe that it is all true.

you can even see the fish on the table

Suddenly, in the middle of all the talking, Jesus is there among them, and this is the event that our Gospel reading is centred on.  He lets them have a good look at him, he encourages them to touch and hold him to prove that he is not a ghost.  It is particularly poignant to read these words at a time when we are all still socially distanced.  In a touching, homely detail, he asks them if there is anything around that he can eat, and they give him a bit of left-over grilled fish, which he eats to demonstrate even more clearly that he is really there.  Then he explains again to the bigger group, as he has already done to Cleopas, how everything that happened to him is the fulfilment of the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms.  Jesus’ last paragraph is an even shorter summary of what Peter has already said succinctly in the first reading, even down to the repeating of the word ‘witnesses’, a tightly-woven piece of ring composition.

Fourth Sunday of Easter B  (Good Shepherd Sunday)

This might equally be called Cornerstone Sunday.  The First Reading picks up Peter and John more or less at the same point where we left them the previous week.  Peter, the transformed Peter, has gone on explaining his message forcefully and clearly to the assembled crowd, so the Temple authorities are not happy.  They arrest Peter and John and put them in prison overnight to cool off.

Jesus before the high priest, with Peter downstairs

Our reading is what Peter says the next day, in the presence of Annas and Caiaphas, so really in the lions’ den here: these are the people at least partly responsible for the Crucifixion, which Peter knows because he was there in the high priest’s courtyard (Lk 22).  He repeats the same message even more clearly, he is filled with the Holy Spirit, and sounds completely ‘confident and unafraid’, as the Canticle in Isaiah 12 says.  He quotes the line about the stone rejected by the builders out of Psalm 117/118, the psalm which comes back and back again through the Easter season for us, but also seriously familiar to Annas and Caiaphas, although they would totally reject Peter’s interpretation of it.  Our reading stops there, but if you carry on reading, the authorities are completely flummoxed by Peter and John’s clarity and confidence and cannot work out what to do with them, so they let them go.

What psalm could we sing after this except Psalm 117/118 (yet again)?  It’s not exactly the same version that we sing on Easter Sunday, because this is quite a long psalm and we sing several different selections of verses, put together in different formats, so I have different tunes to fit.  For some reason this version has v.21 duplicated and used a second time (and out of sequence) in the last stanza, making that stanza seven lines rather than the usual six.  I suspect there’s a mistake there, but it’s of long standing and in every anglophone Lectionary, so I’ve just written an extra bit of tune for it.  The Response is the crucial line repeated, which feels exactly right.

The second reading is another beautiful extract from John’s first letter about our being God’s children.  John’s letter is particularly significant for the early Church, as he is always completely inclusive.  Anyone can be God’s child; anyone can do God’s will.  The Gospel, marking chronological time again, is away back in John 10, where Jesus calls himself the good shepherd and lays claim to all the sheep, including those ‘not of this fold’, again expanding the potential reach of the Church.

Fifth Sunday of Easter B : I am the vine

We have leapt forward in Acts for our First Reading this week, to chapter 9, and our central character is suddenly Saul.  All sorts of things have been happening to the early Church.  Peter and the apostles have even been put back into prison, but this time an angel came to fetch them out.  They have now been summoned in front of the authorities repeatedly, and Peter’s message remains the same, becoming simpler and clearer at each iteration.  Their numbers are increasing, they have had to rope in some new men to help with practical charity, Stephen has been appointed deacon, called upon to testify and then martyred.  The community is being persecuted by various people including one Saul.  There have been healings, miracles, conversions and all sorts of events. 

Conversion of St Paul
Fierce encounter of the third kind

At the beginning of chapter 9 of Acts, Saul is struck down on the way to Damascus in an encounter with the Lord.  We don’t get any of these events in our reading.  We have Saul, newly arrived back in Jerusalem, and trying to join the disciples who are understandably very suspicious.  Saul has escaped from Damascus in a basket (there are times when Acts reminds you of Dumas, or The Wind in the Willows), and luckily he has Barnabas to speak for him.  He preaches fearlessly and convincingly, and Jerusalem too becomes too hot to hold him.

What psalm after this?  We have Psalm 21/22, which is a great choice, because it is so appropriate for Saul and because he would have known it so well, as a Pharisee and Talmud scholar.  This psalm beautifully takes the words of a virtuous and observant Jew and repurposes them into a call for the whole world to come and join in the worship of Jesus the Messiah.  The ‘great assembly’ in the synagogue which Saul knew so well flowers out into ‘all families of the nations’.

The second reading is John on active love and not being afraid in God’s presence.  The Gospel hops forward to chapter 15 of John and Jesus’ extended comparison of himself with the vine.  Last week, we were sheep;  this week we are branches, part of a growing whole, and bearers of fruit (we hope).

Sixth Sunday of Easter B : all are welcome

Saul has been sent off to Tarsus, to help with the Church there, so the focus of Acts returns to Peter for a while.  He too is travelling, first to Lydda, where he heals a paralysed man called Aeneas, and then to Joppa, where he raises Tabitha (actually labelled as a ‘disciple’) from the dead.  Then he goes on to Caesarea, because he has been sent for by Cornelius.  Cornelius is a centurion of the Roman army, with all that implies about allegiance and position, but he is also a man of virtue who is earnestly trying to do the right thing.  An angel has told him to send for Peter, and even gives him the address where to find him.  Cornelius is not short of servants or soldiers, so he puts a little group together and sends them off to Joppa.

Peter’s vision on the rooftop

As they approach the city, Peter is praying on a rooftop before a meal, when he has a vision in which God lowers a great sheet or tablecloth full of animals, birds and reptiles and tells him that nothing can be unclean if God has cleansed it.  This happens three times, like watching a nature video repeatedly.  He is baffled as to the meaning of this vision, but then the Holy Spirit tells him to go downstairs to see the three men at the gate who are looking for him.  He is to go with them ‘without hesitation’, even though some of them are Roman soldiers.  Peter goes downstairs, welcomes Cornelius’ men, hears why they want him and invites them in for supper and to stay the night; the next morning they all set off back to Caesarea.  It is easy to miss how amazing these events are, how upside-down all this would appear to someone on the outside of the transformation that the early Church has undergone with the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Cornelius kneeling before Peter

When he meets Cornelius, they explain to each other how they have each been directed towards the other.  Peter has come with some of his people from Joppa, and Cornelius’ whole household is there, so this is a sizeable group of people.  Cornelius invites Peter to address them all.  All this has happened before our first reading starts. We begin with the meeting between the two men, and what happens next, Peter’s words to those assembled.  What is omitted here (see the list of verses at the beginning) is another of Peter’s summaries of Jesus’ life and death, and the Resurrection.  This is in fact the first reading of the Mass on Easter Sunday.   We usually repeat the Baptismal promises after the Gospel on Easter Sunday, but we don’t miss the Creed because Peter has already said it for us.  This whole section is not in our current reading because the importance of the encounter between Peter and Cornelius is Peter’s new understanding that the Gentiles are to be converted as freely as the Jews, and that God sends his Spirit as freely to the one as to the other.

Trinity - Jesus juggling
King of all the ends of the earth, and juggling as well
Psalm 97/98 : wider still and wider

The following psalm (97/98) is a victory psalm, stressing the international aspect of salvation.  Nothing has been taken away from Israel, but the pagans have been added (second stanza).  Even the ends of the earth have seen salvation, like the corners of the great sheet in Peter’s vision.  The second reading is another of John’s reflections on the all-encompassing nature of God’s love, and the Gospel is from John 15, following directly from the previous week.  These readings from John are part of the Last Discourse given to the apostles before they all set out for the Mount of Olives where the Passion will be set in train by Judas’ kiss.  Jesus repeats his command to love one another, trying to make this the message that they will all understand and remember even when he has gone.  It is the nearest thing the early Church has to a mission statement.

It is allowed in the rubric to swap the second reading and Gospel for the seventh Sunday  in place of sixth Sunday, if the Ascension Mass takes the place of the seventh Sunday, but the message remains the same, just coming slightly later in the text.

Onward and upward
Ascension
I particularly like the feet and the footprints in this one

The next event after this is the Ascension, whether you celebrate it on the traditional Thursday or the following Sunday; but we have come a long way in these six weeks, and we now know that the group of disciples will find a way to cope after Jesus’ departure.  The early Church is on its way.  There is another of those screeching changes of gear and direction at the beginning of the readings for the Ascension, because we go back (all three Liturgical Years the same) to the very beginning of Acts, with the apostles waiting in the Upper Room.  Jesus tells them to stay there and wait for the Holy Spirit, and after his Ascension, this is precisely what they do.

Penetecost dove
the arrival of the Holy Spirit

But now we already know, because of the Eastertide readings, that after Pentecost, amazing things will happen, and the disciples will find a way to carry the story forward even without Jesus.  The Eastertide readings are like an interlude.  Like the apostles, we are waiting for the next event to happen (first the Ascension, and then Pentecost), but it’s not like the waiting of Lent or the Sundays of Ordinary Time.  We are celebrating the fact of the Resurrection over these six weeks.  This joy is too much for one Sunday, and that’s why we keep on using the double alleluias at the end of Mass as part of the dismissal.  But we need a story to keep us interested from week to week, so we find out how Jesus’ followers started to carry out the charge he gave them. The early Church is a complicated and messy phenomenon. There are several protagonists and there are several different cities where it is all happening.  This is exciting; these are signs of success.  It is difficult to take it all in, especially in bite-sized Sunday chunks; but the Sundays of Eastertide give us a chance to see how the mustard seed of faith takes root and grows into the great tree so that all the birds can come and nest in it.  Quite a story.

Yggdrasil tree
Celtic roots, wider outreach

©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.