By Peter Amsterdam
December 15, 2015
Christmas is such an important celebration for Christians. It’s a time of great joy as we remember the birth of our Lord and the events surrounding His first coming. At times Christmas events, family gatherings, and ministering to the needs of others understandably keep us from taking the time to meditate on the wonder of the birth of Christ. That’s been the case for me sometimes. This year, I spent a bit of time searching for a way to make Christmas more spiritually meaningful, to focus on the meaning, the history, and the wonder of Christmas. My hope was that whatever I found might be a blessing to you as well.
My search led me to a service that has been held in Britain every year since 1918 called “The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.” It consists of an opening hymn followed by nine Scripture readings, each followed by a hymn, and a closing hymn. The nine devotional readings, which are included below, along with the lyrics of and links to their corresponding hymns, take us through various aspects of God’s promises regarding His bringing salvation, starting within the Old Testament, and then covering the events of Jesus’ birth, ending with a beautiful reading from the Gospel of John.
This “Nine Lessons” devotional series features readings and music which flow from Genesis to Revelation, all focused on the One who was foretold in the Old Testament, who came and fulfilled God’s promises in the New Testament, and who will rule and reign forever, as told in Revelation. While the music adds to the readings, the main focus of the “Nine Lessons” is what God’s Word tells us about the coming and arrival of God’s promised Savior.
Maria and I pray that you will find these readings and songs spiritually feeding and a means of focusing on the importance of the event we celebrate at this time of year—the birth of our Savior, Jesus.
(A few notes about the music: The carols which are interspersed between the readings are a mixture of familiar and less familiar. The less well-known ones were generally written for choirs and are therefore somewhat formal. It can be difficult to understand the words of a choral performance, so I have, when possible, chosen versions of the songs which are performed by individuals.
With some of the hymns I’ve included both a choral and a solo version. If the link doesn’t work, you can try copying the link to your browser, which sometimes works. And if none of the links for a certain song work in your country, try searching the name of the song in YouTube to see if you can find another option. The lyrics are included so that you can either follow them while listening or simply read them if you prefer. For me, reading the words while listening helps me focus on the message of the songs. Not all of the renditions of the songs that are included follow the song words to the letter; also, in some cases there are various versions of the lyrics, and I haven’t included all the alternatives.)
Once in Royal David’s City
Solo versions here and here.
Once in royal David's city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And his shelter was a stable,
And his cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.
And through all his wondrous childhood
He would honour and obey,
Love, and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms he lay;
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as he.
For he is our childhood's pattern,
Day by day like us he grew,
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew;
And he feeleth for our sadness,
And he shareth in our gladness.
And our eyes at last shall see him,
Through his own redeeming love,
For that child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above;
And he leads his children on
To the place where he is gone.
Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see him; but in heaven,
Set at God's right hand on high;
When like stars his children crowned
All in white shall wait around.
Words: C. F. Alexander
Melody: H. J. Gauntlett
God tells sinful Adam that he has lost the life of Paradise and that his seed will bruise the serpent’s head. (Genesis 3)
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” So the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”1
Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree
The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of Nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ, the apple tree.
His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ, the apple tree.
For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought;
I missed of all, but now I see,
’Tis found in Christ, the apple tree.
I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be
Of Jesus Christ, the apple tree.
This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ, the apple tree.
Words: Anon., Collection of Joshua Smith, New Hampshire
Music: Elizabeth Poston
God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed. (Genesis 22)
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”2
E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come
Solo version (This version is also signed for the non-hearing.)
Peace be to you and grace from Him
Who freed us from our sins,
Who loved us all and shed His blood
That we might save’d be.
Sing holy, holy to our Lord,
The Lord, Almighty God,
Who was and is and is to come;
Sing holy, holy Lord!
Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein,
Rejoice on earth, ye saints below,
For Christ is coming soon!
E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come,
And night shall be no more;
They need no light nor lamp nor sun,
For Christ will be their All!
Words: Revelation 22
Translated: Ruth Manz
Music: Paul Manz
The prophet foretells the coming of the Savior. (Isaiah 9)
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.3
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Solo versions here and here
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee to-night.
For Christ is born of Mary,
And, gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy Birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth;
How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming;
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him, still
The dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas Angels
The great glad tidings tell:
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!
Words: P. Brooks
Music: English Traditional
The peace that Christ will bring is foreshown. (Isaiah 11)
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD—and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. With righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.4
A Great and Mighty Wonder
A great and mighty wonder,
A full and holy cure!
The Virgin bears the Infant,
With virgin honor pure.
Repeat the hymn again!
To God on high be glory,
And peace on earth to men!
The Word becomes incarnate
And yet remains on high!
And cherubim sing anthems
To shepherds from the sky.
While thus they sing your monarch,
Those bright angelic bands,
Rejoice, ye vales and mountains,
Ye oceans, clap your hands.
Since all he comes to ransom,
By all be he adored,
The Infant born in Bethl’em
The Saviour and the Lord.
Words: St. Germanus
Translated: J. M. Neil
Music: Michael Praetorius
The angel Gabriel salutes the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Luke 1)
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” “I am the Lord's servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.5
Softly a light is stealing,
Sweetly a maiden sings,
Ever wakeful, ever wistful.
Watching faithfully, thankfully, tenderly
Her King of kings.
My soul doth magnify the Lord:
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
Mary her song to Jesus
Softly, serenely sings:
‘I will love you, I will serve you,
May my lullaby glorify, magnify
My King of kings.’
Words and music: Andrew Carter
St. Luke tells of the birth of Jesus. (Luke 2)
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.6
I Wonder As I Wander
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,
how Jesus the Savior did come for to die
for poor ordn’ry people like you and like I.
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.
When Mary birthed Jesus, ’twas in a cow’s stall,
with wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.
But high from the heavens a star’s light did fall,
and promise of ages it then did recall.
If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,
a star in the sky, or a bird on the wing,
or all of God’s angels in heaven for to sing,
he surely could have it, ’cause he was the King.
Music: Carl Rutti
The shepherds go to the manger. (Luke 2)
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 of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ 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, and on earth peace to men 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.7
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
Mideastern music version
Mixture of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, and Emmanuel
God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this day,
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray:
O tidings of comfort and joy.
In Bethlehem in Judah
This blessed babe was born,
And laid within a manger
Upon this blessed morn,
The which his mother Mary
Did nothing take in scorn:
O tidings of comfort and joy.
From God our heavenly Father
A blessed angel came,
And unto certain shepherds
Brought tidings of the same,
How that in Bethlehem was born:
The Son of God by name:
O tidings of comfort and joy.
Fear not, then said the Angel,
Let nothing you affright,
This day is born a Saviour
Of virtue, power and might;
To free all those who trust in Him
From Satan’s power and might:
O tidings of comfort and joy.
Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All others doth deface:
O tidings of comfort and joy
Words: English Traditional
The wise men are led by the star to Jesus. (Matthew 2)
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.8
Three Kings From Persian Lands Afar
Three kings from Persian lands afar
To Jordan follow the pointing star:
And this the quest of the travellers three,
Where the new-born King of the Jews may be.
Full royal gifts they bear for the King;
Gold, incense, myrrh are their offering.
The star shines out with a steadfast ray;
The kings to Bethlehem make their way,
And there in worship they bend the knee,
As Mary’s child in her lap they see;
Their royal gifts they show to the King;
Gold, incense, myrrh are their offering.
Thou child of man, lo, to Bethlehem
The kings are travelling, travel with them!
The star of mercy, the star of grace,
Shall lead thy heart to its resting-place.
Gold, incense, myrrh thou canst not bring;
Offer thy heart to the infant King.
Chorale (sung in the background at the same time as the above).
How brightly shines the morning star!
With grace and truth from heaven afar
Our Jesse tree now bloweth.
Of Jacob’s stem and David’s line,
For thee, my Bridegroom, King divine,
My soul with love o’erfloweth.
Thy word, Jesu,
Inly feeds us,
Rightly leads us,
Praise, oh praise such love o’erflowing.
Words: P. Cornelius and P. Nicolai
Translated: H. N. Bate
Music: Peter Cornelius
St. John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation. (John 1)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light. There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.9
O Come, All Ye Faithful
Watch here and here
O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him,
Born the King of Angels.
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo! he abhors not the Virgin's womb;
Begotten, not created.
Sing, choirs of angels,
Sing in exultation,
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above;
‘Glory to God
In the highest’.
Yea, Lord, we greet thee,
Born this happy morning,
Jesu, to thee be glory given;
Word of the Father,
Now in flesh appearing.
Words translated: F. Oakeley
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Other versions here and here
Hark! the herald angels sing:
‘Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!’
Joyful, all ye nations rise!
Join the triumph of the skies!
With the angelic host proclaim:
‘Christ is born in Bethlehem!’
Hark! the herald angels sing:
‘Glory to the new-born King!’
Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord:
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see!
Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with man to dwell:
Jesus, our Emmanuel!
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Words: C. Wesley and G. Whitefield
Music: J. L. F. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
May you have a blessed Christmas!
1 Genesis 3:8–15, 17–19 NIV.
2 Genesis 22:15–18 NIV.
3 Isaiah 9:2, 6–7 NIV.
4 Isaiah 11:1–4, 6–9 NIV.
5 Luke 1:26–35, 38 NIV.
6 Luke 2:1, 3–7 NIV.
7 Luke 2:8–16 NIV.
8 Matthew 2:1–12 NIV.
9 John 1:1–14 NAU.
10 “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (originally written in Latin as Adeste Fideles) is a Christmas carol which has been attributed to various authors, including John Francis Wade (1711–1786), with the earliest copies of the hymn all bearing his signature, John Reading (1645–1692), and King John IV of Portugal (1604–1656).