COVID-19: Essential Information

Welcome and Historical Introduction

Our service is based on the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that has been celebrated every year at King’s College, Cambridge, England since 1918. Beginning in the 1930s the King’s College service was broadcast annually to millions worldwide on BBC Radio. It was originally planned by Eric Milner-White, the Dean of King’s College Chapel. He had been a World War I British army chaplain, and became a liturgical pioneer who was convinced that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship. Christmas Eve 1918 was a mere six weeks from the World War I armistice; nearly half of Cambridge University undergraduates had gone off to war and a third of them never came back. Thus the phrase, “all those who rejoice with us, but on another shore and in a greater light,” from the bidding prayer, had particular resonance. Though the music changes each year, the backbone of the service—the prayers and lessons—has remained virtually unchanged in the Cambridge service since those days.

The first Middlebury College service took place in 1971, under the direction of Emory Fanning and Chaplain Charles P. Scott. They were certain that the College’s music department was up to the challenge, and that the community would welcome this colorful and moving celebration of the season. Middlebury’s Lessons and Carols was made famous by two public television specials. Christmas in Vermont: A Celebration of Lessons and Carols was filmed in 1984. And in 1988, Vermont Public Television produced A Vermont Christmas, narrated by actor Burgess Meredith and filmed on location in Middlebury and on the College’s Bread Loaf campus. Each production was rebroadcast, over several years, by over 200 public television stations nationally. Each year the offering is donated to HOPE, Elderly Services, and Addison Home Health and Hospice. The 2018 services raised over $4,000, a testament to the generosity of our community.

The overall format of this service provides such a rich opportunity to experience both the emotional resonance and familiarity of tradition, while each year stretching both the congregation and the choir with music that is unfamiliar or new. Over the years that blend of constancy, depth, innovation, and breadth creates a sense of anticipation and joy well suited for the Advent and Christmas seasons. For the Christian community, Advent is not only about the expectation of the birth of Jesus, which has already happened in history, it is also about the rebirth of the earth, the re-infusing of the New Creation into our currently beautiful, but broken world. The hope is expressed every time the Lord’s Prayer is recited in public and private devotion: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

About the Music 2018

Organ, choral, and congregational music for Lessons and Carols provides traditional, conceptual, and interpretive context for the text of the service. This year there is an international aspect to the program on the whole. The organ music is drawn from the traditional organ repertoire of the Christmas season, including “noels” from France, and chorale-based preludes by Johann Sebastian Bach. Congregational carols and hymns include traditional Advent and Christmas favorites. The choral music includes works by composers from countries in South America, Europe, and Africa, many written in the 20th–21st centuries. The texts include Biblical verse and spiritual poetry, and each choral setting is unique in rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic character.

Themes of trust, comfort, and love are prominent in the choral music. Mary is an important figure in the texts, and the references to Mary range from celebration, to adoration, to humility and respect. Towards the latter part of the program the focus shifts Jesus, and rhythms of dance. In Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, Jesus tells the Christmas story in first-person, including reference to his baptism. The stanzas of that carol not set in Gardner’s music include the Easter story (as do several traditional carols, note also the reference to Easter in LLega la Navidad, earlier in the service). “This have I done” therefore includes Jesus’ self-sacrifice, and his “true love” is all of humanity.

The program celebrates music and tradition, but that is complemented by thoughts of people far away, of those in need and times of need, and of the wonder and trepidation of a young woman bearing a child in an unfamiliar place, under difficult circumstances. The College Choir shares this program in the spirit of artistic beauty, thoughtful inquiry, and joyful community.

—Jeffrey Buettner, DMA

From the artist: The Night Visitors


This is a painting about a journey taken at night, led by a star. The Night Visitors traveled under the bright light of a star to honor a newborn baby—this child sent for our salvation. It is also about Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, present to the child at birth, and onward, and it is about a strong, young mother, Mary, who was called by God.

Mary is the voice and the action of this painting and she looks at us with eyes conveying sadness, longing, and admittedly, doubt. She presents the Christ Child yet holds on to him tightly, this swaddled baby whose sleeping face is circled in cloth. Only he has a simple pink halo.

The Night Visitors pays homage to the nurturing side of men. Sadly the quiet and gentle male spirit is not celebrated often enough. Here Joseph and the Magi have their eyes closed in contemplation and prayer reflecting longing for closeness to God, our shared experience. I was inspired by the good monks at Mepkin Abbey and by my own lovely son to create a work of art honoring the peaceful and tender side of men and what a beautiful thing that is.

On June 17, 2015, nine innocent souls lost their lives at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC. Recently a friend attended the National Black Sister’s Conference in Charleston and had a prayer service at the church. She said what touched her most was seeing the late Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s chair in the sanctuary draped with black cloth. Her memory became mine. While working on The Night Visitors day after day and hearing the news coming from Charleston the painting took on a life of its own and this tragedy infused the painting. Perhaps the darkness of the spirit deepened, perhaps eyes are closed more tightly and perhaps Mary looks at us with larger questions behind her eyes.

When Fr. Guerric Heckle called me to discuss creating a new and inclusive interpretation of the Magi story I was instantly inspired. I was delighted and honored to know the painting would serve as the invitational piece into Mepkin Abbey’s 2015 Crèche Festival. But one never knows at the outset of a journey the path that will be revealed and for an artist just how a work of art will move for- ward into existence. I accepted the spiritual commitment it takes to do this work and mourned, along with everyone else, the massacre in Charleston. It is my hope that viewers will experience The Night Visitors as a beacon of possibility, one that encourages hope over despair and like the congregation at Mother Emanuel have chosen so inspirationally to do, may it invite forgiveness and love.

—Janet McKenzie, the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont 

Department of Music

Mahaney Center for the Arts
72 Porter Field Road
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753