An Introduction to ‘A Ceremony of Carols’ by Benjamin Britten

cer⋅e⋅mo⋅ny [noun] 1. an act or series of acts performed according to a prescribed form

Introducing his letter to the Romans, Paul sets out the background to his calling, and broadly defines the canvas of our salvation. The gospel of God is promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures. In part one of the drama, Jesus descends from David according to the flesh. In part two, Jesus is declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead. The incarnation of Christ is a necessary prerequisite to his suffering, death and resurrection. It’s a prescribed form, a cosmic ceremony.

Benjamin Britten wrote ‘A Ceremony of Carols’ while on a dangerous sea journey from the United States to Great Britain, during the height of World War II. The work is a musical setting of Middle English poetry. A procession of plainsong themes, dance-like rhythms and delicate counterpoint, the piece affords the listener several unique perspectives on the mystery of the incarnation. Theologically, the Ceremony culminates in a ferocious battle between good and evil, the music expanding to paint a vivid picture of apocalyptic conflict – resonating palpably with Britten’s plight at sea.

If you’ve ever watched the state opening of British Parliament, you’ll know that ceremonies can be marvelous occasions. It’s clear that they rely on total conformity to a prescribed form. Without this, they are at best untidy, and at worst chaotic, devoid of meaning.

As we journey from Advent to Christmas, we are called to align ourselves with God’s prescribed form, and through the Holy Spirit allow His divine purpose to work through our lives. God risks everything in sending His Son to live among us. Benjamin Britten overcomes danger to create a work of enduring beauty. And now we are invited to step out into the perfect ceremony of new life in Christ, a divine dance that begins today, and lasts forever.

Take a deep breath, and listen to the music…

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