The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus I - 25 December 2010 (Eve)

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Saint Luke 2:1-20

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Modern Christmas is almost Gordian knot of pagan, Christian, secular, national, and economic rites, symbols, and ceremonies that have been thrown together over time.  It is not one of the earliest dates in the Christian liturgical year, probably only dating from the mid fourth century.  The influence of the pagan celebration of Natalis invicti (a Mithraitic celebration – Mithraism was the religion of the Roman military) near the Winter Solstice is almost certain in the West.  The East celebrates the day on 6 January.  What most informs Christmas in American churches and households are the customs of England (Carols) and Germany (the Christmas Tree).  In the secular world the feast seems to begin sometime before Thanksgiving and ends abruptly on Christmas Eve.  In the liturgical churches the Feast begins with the first of three Christmas masses at midnight, and then extending to the Epiphany of our Lord on 6 January.

Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness--
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

In the Ancient Near East kingship was more than a political office, or a dynastic heritage.  Kingship was the essence of a people and a nation.  Isaiah’s words here, which may actually be a liturgical piece celebrating the accession of the king, describe the hoped-for ideal. All the aspects of common life are noted:  enlightenment, the harvest, victory in conflict, and the promise of continued Davidic kingship (“for a child has been born for us).  The names and titles that are ascribed to this ideal king would have been recognized in any Mesopotamian court: Counselor, Father, and Prince.  The idealism of this description commends itself to a Christian understanding of this text, where Jesus is the ideal king who accomplishes all these things.

Breaking open Isaiah
  1. Has there been darkness in your life?  Has there been “great light”?  How would you describe these moments.
  2. Isaiah talks about a yoke (of oppression) that is broken for the people of Judah.  What yokes in your life have been broken?
  3. What did Isaiah hope for when he saw the advent of “endless peace”?  What do you hope for?

Psalm 96  Cantate Domino

Sing to the LORD a new song; *
sing to the LORD, all the whole earth.

Sing to the LORD and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.

For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.

As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the LORD who made the heavens.

Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!

Ascribe to the LORD, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the LORD honor and power.

Ascribe to the LORD the honor due his Name; *
bring offerings and come into his courts.

Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before him.

Tell it out among the nations: "The LORD is King! *
he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity."

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
let the sea thunder and all that is in it; *
let the field be joyful and all that is therein.

Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy
before the LORD when he comes, *
when he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness *
and the peoples with his truth.

Again, we are met with a liturgical piece, a medley, it would seem, of familiar phrases and versets from other psalms.  The familiarity of these texts would have made the piece accessible to the people, who would have sung it in the temple court, or at other occasions.  What commends this psalm to the Christian lectionary is the whole notion of a “new song”.  The incarnation of Jesus, the Word, was a new song in creation, and this psalm can be seen celebrating that reality.  The translation of this psalm mutes one of its more telling phrases, in which the author makes a monotheistic point.  Verse 5 (“As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols”) is translated by Alter as “For all gods of the peoples are ungods”.  The Hebrew actually adds a diminutive to the phrase, which could be read as “ungodlets.”  The celebration of God and all of the aspects of God’s rule is appropriate to celebrate the God-with-us at the birth of Jesus.

Breaking open Psalm 80
1.     Who are the “ungods” in our society and culture?
2.     If you could sing a new song of praise to God, what would it be like?
3.     What does it mean when the psalm says that God will rule the world with righteousness?

Titus 2:11-14

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

St. Titus

Titus, Paul’s representative on the island of Crete, along with Timothy, are the beneficiaries of Paul’s personal comments to them on how to preside over local churches.  These letters (Titus, and I and II Timothy) form the so-called Pastoral Epistles.  All of them are similar in content and intent.  In this reading Paul reiterates two important aspects of his theology: the divinity of Jesus, and the sacrificial death of Jesus.  We hear echoes of the Hebrew covenant made new in Jesus in Paul’s phrase: “and purify for himself a people of his own…”  In a way, Paul’s words to Titus form a foundation upon which can rest our proclamation of the Christmas story, providing both a purpose, and a future.

Breaking open Titus:
  1. Waiting, is an activity in Paul.  What does he suggest to Titus as ways of actively waiting?
  2. What does it mean when Paul calls Jesus “Great God”?
  3. What does it mean that Jesus purifies a people of his own?

Saint Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

These verses are familiar to so many, that it seems good and prudent to poke a little deeper into their meaning, and, like Mary ponder them in both heart and mind.  Luke has Jesus born into a real world.  There is no room in the inn, the Roman government is performing a census, the family needs to go back to their roots (David roots – Luke has a point to make here about Jesus’ heritage), the miracle is announced to the poor and distrusted – the shepherds.  The actual birth is quite straightforward.  It is what is perceived in this birth that is important to Luke.  Isaiah had hoped for a messianic king who would do great things for them.  In these verses of Luke, Isaiah’s hopes are fulfilled.  “The poor have good news preached to them.” The angels announce the birth as it had been announced to Mary: “have no fear, for a Savior is born”.  The titles that Luke uses to describe the holy child are telling as well: Savior, Messiah (Christ – Anointed One), the Lord.  Each of these could be spoken of and applied in royal circumstances – and were.  Luke has Jesus take on the titles of the world’s powerful, however Jesus will live out their promise in a new way.  Yes, indeed.  Something to ponder.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What role do the shepherds play in the story?  Is it central?  What does it say to you personally?
  2. What role does Mary play in this reading?
  3. When Luke says that the shepherds were “amazed”, what does he really mean?

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

O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.


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