Planning - Christmas Day
Isaiah announces the return of the LORD to Jerusalem, a sign of the end of exile. "All the ends of the earth shall see God's salvation."
Psalm response: Psalm 98 (UMH 818).
A song of praise for God's intervention to save God's people. "For the Lord comes to judge the nations with righteousness, and the peoples with equity." This psalm is also the basis of the hymn, "Joy to the World." If you plan to sing the psalm, sing Response 2 with Tone 1 in D major or use D-C#-B-A; A-B-C#-D in D major.
Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12).
In Jesus, God has given us no mere angel or messenger, but "the radiance of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being. . . [who] sustains all things by his powerful word."
The simple and dramatic telling of the mystery of the Word made flesh, dwelling (literally, pitching tent) among us, and empowering us to become children of God.
Also see Estudios Exegtico: Homilticos -- Spanish-language Revised Common Lectionary resources from Instituto Universitario ISEDET in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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Today is Christmas Day. Historically in the West, there have been three celebrations of Holy Communion (three "Christ-masses") this day. The first is the midnight mass, which we celebrate on Christmas Eve. The second is an early morning mass. You can find the Revised Common Lectionary Readings for that service, not included in The United Methodist Book of Worship at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. The third provides the readings for the Christmas Day service for United Methodists. Historically it is celebrated in the evening before sundown, which makes the repeated references to the light and glory of Christ shining in the face of darkness all the more stunning. Consider celebrating this service outdoors or in a place where you can see the setting sun if at all possible.
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No angels, no shepherds, no stable, no wise men, no birth story, even. So where's Christmas, you may be asking yourself?
These specific readings for the third mass of Christmas Day have a history that stretches far back into Christian history, at least to the seventh century in the West. The church has historically celebrated this, the third of the three Masses of the Feast of the Incarnation (Christ-mass), in a way that focuses less on the stories of the birth of Jesus and more on the joyous proclamation of the grand story of God's salvation for God's people across history, consummating in the arrival of the Word-become-flesh in Jesus Christ.
Given these texts, talk with your worship planning team about what makes sense in terms of location (outdoors if possible!) and visuals for this particular service.
Do you need or want a crche or other "birth-story" decorations as part of the dcor for this service? Maybe not! What other signs or symbols does the narrative of the texts for this service suggest instead or in addition to these usual Christmas trappings? These usual items might remain, but not as a focal point; or if you decide not to include them, they may come back for other services during Christmastide or Epiphany where the texts do include references to the birth narratives. Of course, make such decisions judiciously! You and your team are in the best place to know in your particular context whether such attention to detail might be received with gratitude or suspicion.
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Atmospherics: The Texts
Isaiah calls the ruins of Jerusalem to give thanks for the coming of the Lord because God's people are returning to their homeland to rebuild them. Those of you who live in or near places of devastation know what it is like to see the ruins around you and the people gone, and some are experiencing now the joy of people returning to rebuild and make a new beginning. God's salvation in restoring Jerusalem models God's salvation in restoring destroyed communities worldwide today, whether on the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, the floodplains of the Upper Midwest of the United States, the region surrounding Port-au-Prince in Haiti, the multiple cities in Pakistan washed away by floods, those still recovering from the tsunami in Sumatra or the floods in Nashville, Tennessee, the streets of Darfur, the rice fields of Burma, the ruins of long wars and strife in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, or the devastation of the multi-billion percentage rate inflation that destroyed the national currency in Zimbabwe by mid-2009 and that only now is beginning to show signs of recovery, or the collapse of banks and mortgage markets that still leaves at leastten percent of employable U.S. citizens looking for paying work.
As disciples of Jesus, God-with-us, we are part of the way God's holy arm is bared, and God's salvation becomes known with joy in all the earth. What have you or people in your congregation or community done to help rebuild the lives of others nearby or far away? Consider including images of these rebuilding efforts as you read or tell the story of this text today.
The full text of Hebrews speaks at some length about Jesus being the imprint ("character" in Greek) of God's "ultimate essence" (hypostasis, in Greek) and far superior to angels. Jesus is God with us, high priest who makes purification for us, creator of all the worlds and king of all who rules with the scepter of righteousness. The images here are not at all those of a helpless baby, but of a powerful and awe-inspiring Lord.
The density of the language and the concepts in it may be daunting for your worshiping community. Don't try to explain them all! Don't even try to explain any part of them unless this text, rather than the gospel, seems somehow more appropriate for your focus this evening. This will likely be a small, even intimate gathering. Explanations can shatter the sense of that. Instead, let the grandeur and the beauty of the textx wash over you as you read them -- perhaps more than once -- and let them sink in.
John provides the heart of the good news for today -- that the Word of God was God from the beginning and the Word became flesh and dwelt (pitched tent) among us in Jesus. If the birth stories are "night stories" -- set around a manger at night, with shepherds or wise men or a star, this one is decidedly a twilight story, light shining in the face of darkness, and though appearing to fade for a time, not overcome, but transformed from one light (the sun) to billions of lights (the moon, planets and stars). If it is snowy on this evening in the Northern hemisphere (it will be summer in the South!), notice how first the sunlight, and then the moon and starlight (should your service last this long) reflect off the snow to illumine everything, nearly bright as the moments before sunrise.
The point here is not nature worship. The point is, as the Psalmist puts it, that the whole universe declares the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). At twilight on this day, we profess that indeed that glory is come among us, even on the edge of our darkness, in the face of Jesus Christ.
One of the ways that the reading from John is often offered is to begin it in the dark with the light of a single candle, then gradually increase the lighting to full blaze at the line "we have seen his glory, as of the only-begotten son of God." If lighting cannot be managed well in your worship space, consider offering the reading as a pre-recording, or a voice spoken live into the space (but unseen), using projected imagery to show the increase of the light with the coming of Jesus. Or for a simple, low-tech approach, especially if you are outdoors for this service, ask people to listen to the reading with their eyes closed and then open their eyes at the words, "we have seen his glory."
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It's Christmas Day. Will anyone come? Is this service even worth offering?
Select a time when folks in your congregation or community may be more likely to come. Some communities may have a strong tradition of a Christmas morning service. If so, then go with that, even though these readings are better suited for the time just before sunset. However, in many places, the best time for this service may not be morning. If families have not opened presents on Christmas Eve, there may be great pressure to do that nearly first thing Christmas morning and have the rest of the day to play with their new toys. There may well be a large Christmas dinner in the mid-afternoon, and sports or naptime after that. If you've not done a Christmas Day service before in your church (unless it was on a Sunday), don't try to compete with these things. Consider offering your Christmas Day service either at evening, not just because the texts invite it, but because it might actually work better for more of your worshiping community, too!
Especially if this becomes an evening service, consider starting by candlelight. You might have a single cantor leading a small processional in singing "Of the Father's Love Begotten" unaccompanied, except perhaps by a single bell, as you enter the sanctuary or wherever (a home, a park, or a public square) you gather for worship this evening.
(Ring) Of the Father's love begotten,
(ring) ere the worlds began to be,
(ring) he is Alpha and Omega,
(ring) he the source, the ending he
(ring) of the things that are, that have been
(ring) and that future years shall see,
(ring) evermore and evermore.
All present, accompanied by handbells, organ, or other joyous instruments, with light increasing in the sanctuary as the song is sung:
O ye heights of heaven, adore him;
angel hosts, his praises sing;
powers, dominions, bow before him,
and extol our God and King;
let no tongue on earth be silent,
every voice in concert ring,
evermore and evermore.
(UMH 184, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius)
Other hymns very appropriate for this service include "Joy to the World" (which is based on the Psalm for this service, UMH 246), "Love Came Down at Christmas (UMH 242), "O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright" (UMH 247), "On This Day, Earth Shall Ring" (UMH 248, vs. 1, 4), "Jesus! The Name High Over All" (UMH 193), "Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne" (TFWS 2100), and "Womb of Life" (TFWS 2046).
Whenever you offer this service, you can generally expect the size of the congregation to be small and the feeling intimate. Given these texts and this occasion, however, don't allow intimate to mean "casual" or "impromptu." There is nothing casual about these texts! They cry out to be proclaimed at full voice, not merely spoken or shared among friends. Instead, use the intimacy a smaller gathering may provide to move more deeply into Scripture, preaching, and sacrament than a larger gathering might normally allow. Those who have come to this service have come because they are looking to be part of the richest treasures, the deepest depths the church has to offer. Help them find that!
And Holy Communion at this service should be considered essential. The day itself, after all, is called "Christmas" -- "Christ's Mass" -- the service of Holy Communion to celebrate the coming of Christ! If you know that you or someone else in your congregation authorized to preside at Holy Communion may not be available for this service, start now to find someone in your area who may be available and willing to preside. Elders in The United Methodist Church, as of 2009, rostered pastors in The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, may preside in any congregation at the invitation of pastor and notification to the district superintendent (which may be done after the fact). There may be retired elders, or elders serving in an extension ministry, or elders in other congregations near you who may be delighted to assist you and your congregation on this day or evening. (An offer -- if you are near Indianapolis, Indiana, and want to do this service; and especially if you want to try it outdoors, and if you are lacking an authorized presider, FIRST get clearance from your pastor and DS and then send me an email to [email protected]).
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- Call to Worship: UMBOW 212, "Christ Is Born" (John)
- Greeting: UMBOW 272 (John)
- Greeting: UMBOW 305 (John)
- Opening Prayer: UMBOW 277 (John)
- Prayer of Confession: UMBOW 231 Christmas
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Ghana, Nigeria
- Great Thanksgiving: UMBOW 56-57
- Dismissal With Blessing: UMBOW 287-288 (John)
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Other sources and suggestions
Revised Common Lectionary Prayers (Augsburg Fortress)
- Thematic prayers for the season: page 38
- Intercessory Prayers: page 41
- Scripture prayer: page 41
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