By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published December 23, 2021
ATLANTA–The Lyke House Catholic Center welcomed a tradition of Scripture and song to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The Dec. 2 evening event was the “Christmas Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols,” a Christmas practice that originated in the late 19th century. It includes nine Scripture lessons followed by Christmas carols or other songs reflecting the lesson’s message.
Lessons and Carols is a favorite of Dr. Joseph Legaspi during the Christmas season. Director of the Thea Bowman Scholars since September, he is excited for this to become an annual tradition at Lyke House.
While Christmas concerts are common, “Lessons and Carols has more structure, more meaning and brings liturgy,” said Legaspi.
Lyke House at the Atlanta University Center serves Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University and Georgia State University.
Scripture and song
In an effort to keep people in churches on Christmas Eve in 1880, Anglican Archbishop Edward White Benson, archbishop of Canterbury, created the first Lessons and Carols at Truro Cathedral in Cornwall.
Originally called the “Nine Lessons with Carols,” it included nine biblical passages from the Old and New Testament with various carols and hymns. Lessons followed Adam’s sin, the birth of Jesus and what his birth means. The first reading was by a young chorister and continued through the hierarchy, ending with a reading from the bishop.
It became an immediate success and has been adapted for use by many Christian churches all over the world.
In the Catholic Church, the “Festival of Lessons and Carols” recounts the fall of Adam, the promise of a Messiah, the Incarnation and the great commission to preach the Good News, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Each lesson is followed by a brief prayer.
In his previous position at Saint Peter’s University in New Jersey, Legaspi planned Lessons and Carols for the college. This year, he adapted the event to fit the diverse collegiate community at Lyke House.
Bible passages were mixed with poetry, such as the “Shepherd’s Song at Christmas” by Langston Hughes. Also, an excerpt from a 1978 Christmas Eve homily from St. Oscar Romero was included.
Lessons and Carols was a treat for the more than 40 people who attended, said Father Urey Mark, chaplain and director of the Lyke House. The center was grateful to kick off the Advent and Christmas seasons with the joy that Christ brings to the world, he said.
Thea Bowman Scholars
The evening began with a melody of Christmas carols performed by the James P. Lyke Brass Quartet, a new addition to the musical offerings at the center. Musical selections were performed by the Thea Bowman Singers, as part of The Bowman Scholars Program.
Bowman Scholars help to develop the music program at Lyke House in the spirit of their namesake, Sister Thea Bowman. A Mississippi native, Sister Thea was an African American Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. She was an educator and advocate for racial justice. Sister Thea, designated a Servant of God in 2018, is a candidate for sainthood.
Music majors and talented singers enrolled at any of the four colleges and local high schools are invited to audition for the program, expanding upon the spirit of Sister Thea to learn from other cultures while sharing the abundance of African American culture and spirituality.
The students were helpful in the planning process for Lessons and Carols, explained Legaspi.
“They’re always willing to learn. They’re always willing to help,” he said. “I really enjoy working with them.”
Keron Campbell, a junior at Morehouse College majoring in political science, had no extensive background in music prior to joining the Bowman Scholars. But with encouragement from Legaspi, he has enjoyed his experience in the program.
“It’s been good being around people that are committed to God and that love Jesus just as much as I do,” said Campbell, who will become Catholic at the Easter Vigil in 2022. “We always make it fun, we have a good time.”
Unnisa Suarez, a junior at Georgia State University, was encouraged to join the Bowman Scholars by Legaspi while attending Mass at the Lyke House. She also sings in the women’s choir at Georgia State.
Suarez enjoyed being in the Bowman Scholars Program so much that she invited her sister, Geraldine, to join. Unnisa is majoring in film and media with a minor in Spanish.
Suarez hopes that “everyone remembers the true spirit of Christmas—that it’s not just all about the presents, it’s just the true presence of God.”