The Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve, 24 December 2014
Saint Luke 2:1-20
Background: Christmas Eve
“God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ Evening came, and morning followed—the first day.” This passage from the first creation account gives us a clue as to how the liturgical day was structured to follow the days of creation. The day begins at 6:00 in the evening and proceeds to the following 6:00 in the evening. Thus Christmas Eve is not anticipatory but rather participates in the full celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord. Some churches have made their celebrations later in the evening either at midnight, or an hour earlier so that the night of our Lord’s birth is honored as a festival of light. There are many traditions that surround this holy evening, such as the German tradition of singing the Quem pastores in different stations within the church building. Spanish traditions center around the Misa del Gallo (The Rooster’s Mass). One Anglican tradition is the Nine Lessons and Carols as celebrated at King’s College in Cambridge. All of these traditions reflect the notion that Christ was born at night, and that Christians ought to gather at that time to remember and celebrate the birth.
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 first Isaiah’s “Book of Emmanuel” we come to this segment devoted to the Prince of Peace. Our reading for this evening is taken from a larger pericope (8:23-96), which gives us some context for the Isaiah oracle. We understand with the citation of the tribes of Zebulon and Naphthali that the prophet wants to make comment on the dire situation that faces Israel, as these two provinces were the first to be conquered by Tiglath-pileser III in 733 BCE. The prophet looks forward to what God will do for his distressed people, and thus we are ushered into a liturgical poem that at one time celebrated the accession of the king. With Isaiah’s use, we see it as a prophetic answer to the Assyrian devastation. With its use in the Lectionary for Christmas I, we see hopes for the messianic king who is made real with the birth of Jesus. The son and child that Isaiah sees is the ideal king, who is adopted as YHWH’s son and heir. The oracle begins by celebrating the light that dawn upon a defeated people and then moves on to the new messianic king. What follows then are a listing of virtues and offices that characterize the rule of this “son of God.” We should read these offices as reflective of the “Wisdom” that comes from God, and like the traditions that surround Solomon, these virtues all emanate from the mind of God, who anoints this king with such knowledge. The Christian tradition is that Jesus, the son of Mary, is the one who completes and fulfills this promise of both hymn and prophet.
Breaking open Isaiah:
1 1. How does history work itself into the prophet’s message?
2 2. How does our current history work itself into your faith at this Christmas?
3 3. What are the qualities of an ideal ruler?
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.
Although the psalmist declares that this is a “new song,” it is really a pastiche of versets and thoughts from other psalms. Especially appropriate for its use in the Christmas Eve Liturgy is the scope of its interest – the whole world (not just the People of Israel) are invited to sing the “new song.” Thus it is more universal and more useful in the Christian setting than songs of a more national character. It is very clear, however, as to the focus of this new song. It is YHWH, the creator of all things, heaven and earth. It is not the “ungods” of the peoples. It is YHWH who not only gathers Israel, but it is YHWH who gathers all the families of the nations, and who reigns, and “metes out justice.” To this righteous justice the whole of the cosmos responds. Heavens, earth, seas, fields, and trees – all rejoice at the justice of the One who has made them all. The peoples too - they rejoice as well.
Breaking open Psalm 96
1 1. The psalm is clear in depicting God as gathering all people into God’s family.
2 2. Who, in your mind, is hovering at the perimeter? How might you draw them into the fold?
3 3. What new song could your write or sing?
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.
In this reading, St. Paul is unequivocally clear about what he thinks about Jesus. He is not only the Christ, the anointed one, but he is both God and Savior. These pronouncements are not only theological but political as well. To the readers who lived in a world in which the rulers were some-times named as “gods”, and saviors (soter) as well, Paul is making clear that these men and women are only shadows of the One who “gave himself for us.” Here the crucifixion as a sacrificial offering sets apart this Jesus who gathers up his own people (a reflection of YHWH choosing a people) for the purpose of “good deeds.” On this night, as minds are gathered at the manger and the Blessed Mother, it is good to remember for what this Child has been born.
Breaking open Titus:
1 1. What do you think about Jesus?
2 2. Do you ever think about Jesus in political terms? What might that be?
3 3. What are the “good deeds” for which Jesus chooses us?
St. 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.
Luke leaves behind his account of the Annunciations and the Birth of John the Baptist, which are reflective of the Hebrew background into which they are cast. Now Luke begins to tell his tale of what it is that Jesus means. The dates that Luke proposes (while Quirinius was governor of Syria) present problems that aren’t worth our while here. He outlines his arguments and his points of contact that will become foundational in his theology of Jesus. There are the connections to the Davidic kingship, but there are also signs of the poverty into which most of the people were born and in which they lived. As if to accentuate his Gospel to the Lowly, Luke then turns our attention to the shepherds who see in the skies the angelic message and the song of praise. The angels voice the startling news, and the shepherds respond.
Let’s talk about the shepherds for a second. Although among the lowly in society, they also represent a heritage and nobility. The fathers and mothers who make up the early history of the people of Israel were shepherds. The kings that followed David were often written about and seen as shepherds as well (a common notion in the ancient near east). In a way, the shepherds represent a whole spectrum, the audience to which this Gospel is addressed, and representative of the people that God desires. The shepherds break their bounds, in Luke’s Gospel, by becoming the first to only to witness (as in seeing and experiencing) but also witnessing (as in telling their story). Those who hear are “amazed”, Luke’s code word for “belief”.
Mary, however, shows another aspect in assimilating this news. She tells no one, to our knowledge, but she does “treasure” and “ponder” what has happened. In both shepherd and in Mary Luke gives us examples of what we are called to do. The story cannot be told if we do not understand its meaning, and its precious nature. Mary, if we are to trust the content of her song in the preceding chapter, understands the radical thing God is doing – bringing down, and lifting up. Later prophets (Simeon and Anna) will see the same pattern and will rejoice in a God who makes all things new.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1 1. Why is it important in Luke that Jesus be related to King David?
2 2. What does it mean when Luke (in the announcement to the shepherds) calls Jesus, “Savior,” “Messiah,” and “Lord”?
3 3. Have you ever pondered this story?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Christmas Day. There are three possibilities:
O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
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.
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.