Christmas Season: Mystery, Martyrs and Magnificat
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
You look forward to it every year. Christmas Eve. It may be the biggest attendance day of the year, bringing up your yearly average attendance considerably! It's almost certainly the best attended service or services your congregation will host after dark each year. And, above all, more people who otherwise rarely if ever show up to worship may well be there on this night.
So you go all out, and give your Christmas Eve services everything you've got. Choirs will sing their best music of the season. Praise bands will do their best Christmas show stoppers. Your worship space will be resplendent in Christmas decoration-- greens, trees, star, crèche, and of course candles for everyone to light while singing Silent Night. Your sermon will be one the best you've ever offered. And communion will be at once glorious and intimate.
If you've done it right, you'll leave folks clamoring for more.
But are you ready, really, to give them more?
Or have you spent all your time, energy and planning around this one big service, so there's little left for the rest of Christmas Season? Is Christmas Eve ultimately a "one -off," or does it give your people both the invitation and the opportunity to join you for the rest of the Christmas Season for even more?
As many have discovered, it can be more.
For it to be more, you need to "Think Series" and see the Christmas Eve services not as a "destination" but as a "launching pad" into the rest of this season that has so much to offer!
Here are some handles for doing just that.
Christmas Eve as Overture
An overture offers up a sampling of the major musical themes the opera or movie will later develop in full. Christmas Eve as an overture invites you to consider how your Christmas Eve service may offer a preview of the richness of the themes you may develop in a variety of ways in services, small groups, or activities throughout the 12 days of the Christmas Season to follow.
This is more than a "coming attractions trailer" or a full color brochure you may give to folks to invite them to additional services. This is about introducing and weaving major themes or "threads" of the whole season into your Christmas Eve service.
So what are those major themes or threads?
Let me suggest three "M's" to make it simple: Mystery, Martyrs, and Magnificat.
God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ is mystery! The mystery is primarily not how it happened. The Bible and the church are reasonably clear about that. On Christmas Eve in particular we remember the how, as confessed in the Nicene creeds: "conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary."
If there's an answer, there's not a mystery.
The mystery is that it happened at all, that the Creator of all would be born among us, with all the vulnerability and limitations that implies, and thereby become the savior of the cosmos in our midst.
There are no answers for that. Explanations do not help. There is only wonder.
So the first thread to be weaving into tonight's service, and to keep developing in a variety of ways throughout the coming services, is wonder.
Start in tonight's service by reducing explanations, and provoking wonder-- in song, in preaching, and in ritual action.
This may seem a total mismatch with the "spirit of Christmas" but it has been an integral part of Christmas Season from the earliest centuries of its keeping. December 26 is St. Stephen's Day, when we commemorate the first named Christian martyr, the deacon Stephen. December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, when we recall the genocidal atrocity waged by Herod when he ordered all male children in the region to be slaughtered in hopes of destroying Jesus, whom visiting Iraqi astrologers indicated might be "the King of the Jews." We commemorate the other side of this story the next day (this year), on the First Sunday after Christmas, in recalling the flight as refugees into Egypt, prompted by angels, that spared Jesus' life at that time.
Christmas Season, then, is intensely filled with martyrs, witnesses both to the coming reign of God and to the incredible steps humans take to resist God's reign in our own lives and in the life of the world. Blessed are those who die in the Lord, for they shall live, and shall not have suffered in vain.
Where are the martyrs on this night?
Their presence is foreshadowed in the stories we read this night. We read verses 4-5 in Isaiah 9, reminding us of why Galilee of the Gentiles was known as "land of deep darkness." There was nearly endless war there, and years of oppression of the bitterest sort. Yes, we recall garments rolled in blood, this very night, evoking for us the image of the martyrs under the heavenly altar in Revelation.
In Titus we hear of Jesus, not as baby, but as the one who "gave himself for us," a reference to his own death as a martyr of the kingdom of God, a death, Titus tells us, that makes it possible for us to live a life capable of resisting of the powers of evil and full of good deeds.
And in Luke, they are the shepherds. Remember, the word martyr means first of all, witness, one who sees and testified about what they've seen, no matter the cost or consequences. This is exactly what the shepherds do, is it not? They bore testimony to Mary and Joseph about what the angels had told them (verse 17). And then, on leaving, their joy and elation, giving glory to God, bore witness to all who would encounter them of all they had seen and heard that night (verse 20).
So if you've woven mystery (and so wonder) into this night, be sure you're also weaving martyrs (and so witness). In Jesus, God sees it all-- the violence, the oppression, the endless wars, the power of sin in our lives-- and chooses to come among us and save us anyway. Of this may worship this need lead all to be witnesses, too, if not in our own suffering and deaths, then in our rejoicing for all that God has done!
Which leads us to the third thread of this season...
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior... (Luke 1:46b).
The readings and celebrations of Christmas Season resound with joyous praise, "magnifying the Lord." Starting with the Psalm tonight the readings through this season frequently call us in one way or another "to ascribe to the Lord the glory due God's name" (Psalm 96:8). The reading from Hebrews 1 for Christmas Day is doxology heaped upon doxology. The Psalm for the first Sunday after Christmas (Psalm 148) calls the whole assembly and all creation to raucous, even uproarious praise.
"Joy to the world, the Lord is come!" is a note to be sounded not only on Christmas Eve or Day, but throughout the entire season.
Even on the most dreadful of martyr's days, Holy Innocents.
On this day, the lectionaries that support it give us Psalm 124, calling us to "Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.... Our help is in the name of the Lord, maker of heaven and earth" (verses 6, 8).
Why place benediction alongside suffering? And why during Christmas? Precisely because this is what the coming of God to dwell among us means and leads us to experience. We suffer horrifying things. And... and God is with us in Jesus Christ and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. We can't stop praising our Jesus, not because we're afraid of what happens if we don't. We can't stop praising our Jesus because we know the end of this story, begun at his birth. We can't stop praising our Jesus because we see what the world calls defeat as sure and certain signs of his victory now and in the age to come.
If Lent is about learning "a long obedience in the same direction," Christmas Season is about practicing a long rejoicing in the same direction. Not just on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but every day from now through Epiphany, at every gathering for worship, fellowship, or mission, and in our own devotional practices.
Weaving the Themes/Threads through Christmas Season
Got your themes? Figured out how to make Christmas Eve an overture that introduces all three?
Your next step is to lay out a plan for how you'll continue to weave and develop them in the services, activities and personal devotional life of your congregation for the coming season.
Martyrs may be relatively easy. St Stephen's Day (December 26) and Holy Innocents (December 28) are two days given especially to martyrs. Your particular challenge is to decide the best way to prompt participation in these days. Might one be for some kind of fellowship event around carolling persons returning or exchanging Christmas gifts (Good King Wenceslas went forth on the Feast of Stephen!). Holy Innocents, like Blue Christmas, might be an evening worship event for prayer, contemplation, or maybe a service of healing. Just don't forget the shepherds are martyrs too, as is John the Evangelist, and the magi at Epiphany!
Magnificat may seem easy on Christmas Eve, when your worship space is full and the pageantry is high. Your challenge is to find ways to prompt continual praise, day by day, gathering by gathering so the season ends on an even higher note than it began, not with a whimper, but loud crashing cymbals of praise. Make sure every worship gathering (perhaps Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Holy Innocents, Sunday after Christmas, Watch Night/Holy Name, Epiphany) is punctuated with praise-- not simply read or sung, but boldly proclaimed.
Mystery may seem the hardest of all in a culture that seems most satisfied when it can bust myths, and takes its joy not in wonder but in explanation. Do not succumb! Let wonder thrive, building on it service by service, activity by activity, daily devotional by daily devotional. The wonder of Christmas Eve is not finally its pageantry, but its promise. The wonder of Christmas Day is precisely in its doxology. The wonder of St. Stephen is in his vision of the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. The wonder of St John is in the I am statements by Jesus. The wonder of Holy Innocents is in the extreme lengths the world takes to try, and fail, to quench God's fiery, determined love. The wonder of the Sunday after Christmas is God's mysterious way to keep Jesus alive. The wonder of Watch Night/Holy Name is in acts of human blessing and all creation bowing at the name of the one bowed to the lowest point by humankind. The wonder of Epiphany is the very stars declaring their Maker's birth.
Mystery. Martyrs. Magnificat.
With Christmas Eve as an overture, and a series of opportunities for worship, fellowship, service and devotion that will let me take those deeper during these days... I think I might just come back for that.
This year, let Christmas be more than just a one night stand.