The Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve, 24 December 2018

TheNativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve, 24 December 2018

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
St. Luke 2:2-14, (15-20)

Background: Christmas

The celebration of Christ’s birth has moved about amongst various dates and with a variety of emphases, but the date of 25 December seems to have stuck. In the Eastern Church, it is celebrated in the Julian Calendar, which in the western calendar is 7 January. The Western Church celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. The stretch of days from 25 December through 6/7 January is seen as one unified cycle. The Council of Tours made that determination in 567. The earliest documentation about the celebration of this Feast is from a Roman document dating from 336. There it records “8 Kalends January – the birth Christ in Bethlehem, Judea. The Eastern Church introduced the festival, centered around the Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus in Constantinople in 379. It disappeared for a few years, but was reintroduced by St. John Chrysostom in 400.

First Reading: 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 Lordof hosts will do this.

This poem documents Isaiah’s hopes for a renewed kingship. He envisions an ideal monarch who as an innocent (“For a child has been born for us.”) will bring into place the prophetic ideals of righteousness and justice.  What Isaiah and others had seen as darkness, the widening threat of Babylon and Assyria before that, gives way to a great light – an enlightenment from God. We get that same message from many others such as Psalm 139,

If I take the wings of dawn*
and dwell beyond the sea,*
10Even there your hand guides me,
your right hand holds me fast.
11If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me,
and night shall be my light”*
12Darkness is not dark for you,
and night shines as the day.

Although it will take time for Isaiah’s hopes to be realized, he writes about them as if they have already been accomplished. The realities of their former situation is brutally spelled out: “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.” This they saw at the hands of the Assyrians, and the hope is for a time free of the oppression by foreign rulers. What follows are a series of causes for joy, the joy born of freedom and redemption from the oppressor.

Something new is required, and this new monarch is not even called a king for he is but a child endowed with all the aspects that Isaiah laboriously lays out, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God…” Divinity? Perhaps Isaiah is naming this sought for monarch with Egyptian-like throne names, “Mighty Bull appearing in Thebes.” Did Israel do the same? Israel’s kings were not God, but they were to represent God in the righteousness and justice of their deeds. This is the ultimate relationship of the Throne of David and the God of the Covenant, the God who loves and is passionately present with the people. “The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. How does a child’s innocence explain Isaiah’s hope?
  2. Which of the names (Wonder, Counselor…) do you like the best?
  3. What are your messianic hopes?

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.
10    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."
11    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.
12    Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy
before the Lord when he comes, *
when he comes to judge the earth.
13    He will judge the world with righteousness *
and the peoples with his truth.

The psalmist, like Isaiah above, is seeking and longing for something new. Thus, then, a new song, sung by the whole earth. This is not just Israel’s new song, but rather a song that is sung by the whole earth. It is here that I love Robert Alter’s transalation of verse 5: 

“For all gods of the peoples are ungods.”[1]

The psalmist wants us to see them as not just another variety of divinity, but as non-existent, unreal. This is in contrast to the line that comes before, he is more to be feared than all gods.”This God has a proven track record, the creation of the very heavens. Thus we bring honor and praise to the creator. In verse 10 we have a sense of the on-going nature of God’s role as creator – God makes the world firm and sound. Thus, all the aspects of creation praise God’s name. Righteousness and truth are the hallmarks of God’s rule.

Breaking open Psalm 96:
  1. Who are your “ungods”?
  2. How does God make your world firm?
  3. What have been your gifts of righteousness and truth?

Second Reading: 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.

Titus may have served as an introduction to the First and Second Epistles of Timothy, however it has its own separate themes in its commentary on the Holy Spirit and Baptism. In the verses that precede our pericope, Titus gives words of encouragement to live a Christian life, lives that are in agreement with the Gospel. What follows however is theology. It is not just what we do or how we act that makes the fulness of our Christianity. The reality is the salvation that is brought to us, as our lives await the fulness of faith. It is Jesus who made us clean and capable of good deeds. 

Breaking open Titus:
  1. In what ways are you still being trained in the faith?
  2. What could you teach others?
  3. What are your good deeds?

The Gospel: St. Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

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.]

From the very beginning of Luke’s nativity we are aware that something is being fulfilled, that the time is complete for something new to happen. He places it, however, not just in the locale of Israel, but in the midst of the Roman Imperium. We become aware of times and men and power. For all of these things are to be reversed and renewed, as Mary sings in her song, Magnificat. But even Jesus is placed within the constructs of power, born in the City of David, and in the line of David. He is king material. 

It’s all really quite simple until we get to the shepherds. Luke meekly states that Mary gave birth – it is the shepherds who see the glory that surrounds that assertion. At they edges of society, doing a necessary but lonely task it is they who see the angel’s glory and hear their hymn. It is also they who journey to see the child – to make it real, and who bear witness to what they have seen and heard. Mary ponders, but the shepherds rejoice and give glory. And thus Luke begins to tell his story of Jesus and the poor ones he is about to shepherd.

Breaking open the Gospel: 
  1. How were these women blessed?
  2. How are you blessed?
  3. How are you blessed in your children.

Initial Idea:                 Rejoicing in humility

First Voice:                  The humility of Bethlehem (Micah)

Second Voice:             The humility of Mary (Magnificat)

Third Voice:                The humility of Worship (Hebrews)

Fourth Voice:              The humility of Elizabeth (Luke)

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

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.

or this

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.

or this

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller

[1]       Alter, R. (2007), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 7583


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