The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ III - 25 December 2010

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-12
Saint John 1:1-14

St. Mary Major, Rome

BACKGROUND – Christmas.  There is an aspect to Christmas celebrations (although it is not only Christmas, but also Lent and Easter as well) that is largely lost to us in English-speaking America.  In the Lectionary there are provisions for readings for three separate services, which is a shadow of a more ancient practice surrounding the Nativity as celebrated in Rome.  The liturgy was not isolated to just one church, but in fact moved from one stational church to another, the faithful following in procession from one mass to another.  The first mass was celebrated at St. Mary Major in Rome, followed by a celebration at the Byzantine court on the Palatine, and finally at The Basilica of St. Peters.  In this way the Roman Church attempted to reflect the ancient practice of the Church in Palestine, where the first mass was at the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, and a second mass at Jerusalem.  The Las Posadas celebrations of Mexico certainly replicate the processional nature of Christmas worship, but their intent is to reflect May and Joseph searching for an Inn. 

Isaiah 52:7-10

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the LORD to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the LORD has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.

The Decree Cylinder of Cyrus the Great

This second Isaiah invites us to witness a scene of great joy.  All along the mountain ridge that runs between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, Isaiah pictures messengers running south to a ruined Jerusalem.  Their shouts are heard by the sentinels standing on the ruined walls.  The message is one of peace, and the restoration of Zion.  Sometime around 536 BCE, Cyrus the Great, King of Persia decreed the release of captive peoples.  In a cylinder scroll detailing the decree, the great kings says, “I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings.”  Second Isaiah saw in this decree the God of Israel active through the acts of human beings – he saw a promise fulfilled.  God was no longer the one who had abandoned the chosen people, but now a God who raises up the old walls of Jerusalem, and makes the people glad with his restoration of the ancient city.   The reading as a part of the Nativity celebrations would certainly be reflective of the Christian messenger, St. John the Baptist; and the joy a reflection of all those that celebrate Christ’s birth.

Breaking open Isaiah
  1. Is there an anticipation when you get a real letter in the mail?
  2. When you receive a particularly good message from some one how do you feel about them?
  3. What are your feelings when you return from home after a long absence?

Psalm 98  Cantate Domino

Sing to the LORD a new song, *
for he has done marvelous things.

With his right hand and his holy arm *
has he won for himself the victory.

The LORD has made known his victory; *
his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.

He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel, *
and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Shout with joy to the LORD, all you lands; *
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.

Sing to the LORD with the harp, *
with the harp and the voice of song.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn *
shout with joy before the King, the LORD.

Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, *
the lands and those who dwell therein.

Let the rivers clap their hands, *
and let the hills ring out with joy before the LORD,
when he comes to judge the earth.

In righteousness shall he judge the world *
and the peoples with equity.

This psalm is a celebration of a great victory – although the Hebrew root can also mean “rescue”, and it is that word that seems appropriate here.  The preceding reading from Second Isaiah is really about a God who rescues, who brings back a people from harm and destruction.  The psalm celebrates a similar notion, but unlike Isaiah, the celebration extends to the whole of creation.  In a crescendo of sound the rejoicing moves from all the lands, to musical instruments, to the seas (which in the Hebrew mind was a monster that God had conquered) to rivers and hills.  At the center of all that cosmic praise stands the God that will judge the world with righteousness, and equity.  This reading represents the hopes of those who celebrate the birth of Jesus – finding in him a similar rescue.

Breaking open Psalm 98
1.     Have you ever been rescued?  From what?
2.     What were the emotions that you had about that?
3.     What role does nature play in your prayer and worship life?

Hebrews 1:1-12

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
For to which of the angels did God ever say,
"You are my Son;
today I have begotten you"?
Or again, 
"I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son"?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
"Let all God's angels worship him."
Of the angels he says,
"He makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire."
But of the Son he says,
"Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions."
"In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like clothing;
like a cloak you will roll them up,
and like clothing they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will never end."

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

We don’t know who the author of the Letter to the Hebrews was, but his program is clear and evident.  Jesus is the great high priest, and through a series of comparisons, the author points out to his largely Jewish-Christian audience how Jesus is the fulfillment of all of the promises.  He is clear that promises were made and revealed in “many and various ways.”  The third and fourth verses may be the remnants of an ancient liturgical hymn that the author has used to bolster his arguments and comparisons.  What follows, then, are a series of seven quotes (Psalm 2:7, II Samuel 7:14, Deuteronomy 32:43 and Psalm 97:7, Psalm 104:4, Psalm 45:7-8, Psalm 102:26-28, and Psalm 110) from the Hebrew Scriptures that underscore Jesus’ enthronement as a messianic king.  That Jesus is superior to the angels is a curious tack, in that the notion of angels was a relatively recent addition to the Hebrew Scriptures, and served as a bone of contention between the Pharisees (pro) and the Sadducees (con).  The author is clear, however, Jesus is the best expression of the hopes of the prophets.
Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. In what various ways has God spoken to you in your life?
  2. How has Jesus served as a creator in your life?
  3. How does Jesus make things new for you, how does he rule over them?

Saint John 1:1-4

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 without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

William Blake, The Ancient of Days

In this elegant and stunning prologue, St. John introduces us to his theological ideas about Jesus.  Although the Prologue (1:1-18) may have existed much earlier as a separate liturgical piece, John stamps it with his own theological stance.  It begins with his “genealogy”, but not of the human kind.  These are divine generations with Jesus appearing as the Logos, the very Word (breath) of God.  It is a rewriting of the creation story, placing Jesus at the beginning and at the end of time itself.  The book is the last of the Gospels written (at the end of the first century CE) and reflects and reflects upon the ministry of St. John the Baptist.  These verses cut through the sentimentality that often accompanies both the narratives of Luke and Matthew.  This is no babe lying in a manger.  John’s images (signs) of Jesus are of power, and creative might.  They are images, he readily admits, that are often misunderstood or dismissed.  That, however, is the purpose of his Gospel, a “Book of Signs” that deciphers the mystery and ministry of Jesus. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What is your reaction to the notion that God is your very breath?
  2. What do you know about John the Baptist?  What do you think about him and his role in the Christmas story?
  3. What does it mean to you to hear “and the word was made flesh”?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born this day of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.


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