Light in the Darkness: Celebrate the Season with Lessons & Carols at Rockefeller

Written by Ellen Wiese and interviewed with D. Maurice Charles, Dean of Rockefeller Chapel

If you’re in town for the holidays, Rockefeller has a place for you to celebrate, unwind, and enjoy the songs of the season after a hectic year. The annual Lessons & Carols service draws almost 1800 people from the campus and community to a candlelit service featuring carols old and new.

Rockefeller Chapel, the year-round home of spiritual life at the University of Chicago, is a diverse sanctuary. During your average week, the building hosts non-denominational Christian services, Shabbat, Jumu’ah prayers,  Zen meditation, morning reflection, pagan meetups, choir concerts, yoga, carillon tours, and much more. You can also occasionally catch speakers like Bernie Sanders and Angela Davis, musical groups including Tegan and Sara and Sunn O))), and silent movie screenings with organ accompaniment. But some of its most-attended events are the beloved yearly services, including the interfaith Thanksgiving service and the candlelit Lessons & Carols. 

The tradition of Lessons & Carols is originally Anglican, conceived at King’s College Cambridge by Bishop E.W. Benson (later Archbishop of Canterbury). The first service was held at King’s in 1918—for those interested, the service is broadcast worldwide every year. 

Lessons & Carols services across the world hold to a similar structure: following a dramatic child’s solo of “Once in Royal David’s City,” the organ and choir join in for the procession to the church. Then comes the “bidding prayer,” a 1918 King’s College original, in which the attendees are invited to gather into the night’s mystery. The heart of the service is nine Bible readings describing the events around the Christmas story, interspersed with carols—some dating from the original King’s service, others more contemporary or regionally popular.

Rockefeller puts its own spin on the holiday classic: each year, children from the nearby community as well as the Rockefeller Children’s Choir present a mini-pageant and living manger tableau (sometimes featuring live animals). Rockefeller’s 200-foot cathedral is expansive enough to welcome a wide cross-section of the community, and the service is so popular that it’s standing-room only. 

Dean of the Chapel D. Maurice Charles is looking forward to attending his first Lessons & Carols at Rockefeller and participating in the chapel’s unique take on the tradition (as he says, its “wild and woolly wonderfulness”). His favorite part of the classic service is the final reading from the Gospel of John: "The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

This verse, the Dean says, "brings into focus the broader theme of the literal triumph of light over darkness at the winter solstice and the abiding hope of goodness triumphing over evil, powerfully ritualized by the over a thousand candles that will be lit and held by the congregation in the darkened chapel during the ceremony.” The service echoes the Hindu Diwali festival of lights, the Jewish Hanukkah celebration, and secular vigils in the wake of public tragedy—all of which, says Charles, “share the theme of the triumph of light, love, and knowledge over darkness, hatred, and ignorance.”

The Lessons & Carols Service for Christmas Eve takes place at 4pm on Tuesday, December 24th. The service will feature performances from the Rockefeller Chapel Choir and the Rockefeller Children's Choir, as well as a children's tableau. The service runs about an hour. Admittance is free and all are welcome. 

Published online through the UChicago Arts blog In Practice on December 23, 2019.