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.
Next Sunday, January 1, can be celebrated in a variety of ways -- as The Feast of the Holy Name, as a Watch Night (December 31), or as New Year's Day. This year, it will also be Epiphany Sunday (Epiphany itself is always January 6). Plan for your principal service to be Epiphany, and schedule a separate time for others as fits your context.
January 8 is Baptism of the Lord Sunday.
Special offerings and events for January include Human Relations Day on January 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Observance on January 19, the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25), and Ecumenical Sunday (January 22).
If you read the lessons assigned for this service, you will find no angels, no shepherds, no stable, no wise men and even no birth story. So where's Christmas?
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 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. If the first two celebrations (Christmas Eve and early morning Christmas Day) focus to some degree on the local implications (the birth and its surrounding circumstances), this service focuses on the cosmic implications.
Since Christmas Day falls on a Sunday this year, you may find yourself facing serious challenges even to having worship today at all. Several megachurches (Willow Creek prominent among them) entirely canceled worship the last time this fell on a Sunday. A number of mid-size and larger congregations with multiple services combined them into one mid- or late-morning service. You may find yourself pressured at least to reschedule the service time or times because of what may be very low attendance.
Given these texts, talk with your worship planning team about what makes sense in terms of time, location and visuals for this service. These texts do lend themselves to a late afternoon setting and a location where you can at least see light beginning to shine in the darkness. While an outdoor setting might be ideal, try to worship near windows where light can shine in (and out!), or use video to help illustrate the transition from evening to night and how light still shines, never completely overcome.
Then think through what other "Christmas trappings" make sense to feature in this service and in your worship space. Do you need a crche or other "birth-story" decorations as part of the dcor? Maybe not! What other signs or symbols fit more closely with these texts? God pitching tent among us (John 1) and a call to bring joy to the ruins (Isaiah; see picture above) are but two possibilities. Look at all the clothing references in Hebrews, and see how you might elaborate on these in your worship space as well. While you may not want to remove other elements (crches and greenery, for example) entirely, consider arranging whatever you use in ways that draw the most attention to the central images for this service and its texts.
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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 -- by floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires or other means-- know what it is like to see the ruins around you and the people gone. Some may have experienced 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 and Thailand, the region surrounding Port-au-Prince in Haiti, the regions in Japan devastated by tsunami, those still recovering from the wildfires in Texas, the loss of rice fields of Burma, the ruins of long wars and strife in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, or the economic collapses continuing to drive millions of people into unemployment worldwide.
As disciples of Jesus, God-with-us, we are part of the way "God's holy arm is bared" (verse 10) and God's salvation becomes known with joy in all the earth. Note, the first call here is to rejoice in the midst of the ruins! So how have you helped proclaim good news and rejoicing in the midst of ruins where you are? And what have you or people in your congregation or community done to help rebuild the lives of others nearby or far away? Consider including stories of such announcements and 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, ruling 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 today. Worship today may well be a smaller, more intimate gathering, almost certainly smaller than Christmas Eve services. The smaller the gathering, the less explanation is appropriate. Instead, encourage the reader to let the grandeur and the beauty of these images wash over her or him and let them sink in.
One way to do this is to offer this reading as a lectio divina, reading the text three times and asking for people to reflect upon different things with each successive reading. For the first reading, invite people to take notice of one or two images or statements that most capture their attention. During the second reading, have them listen intently with these images in mind to see what else they may hear. And on the third, ask them to listen for what God is asking them to do about what they are hearing. Leave time for silence (at least 60 seconds) between readings, and offer the opportunity for people who wish to share their words of focus or what they heard God calling them to do afterward.
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).
As the Psalmist puts it, the whole universe declares the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). At twilight on this day and every 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--even though it does fall on a Sunday this year. 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. Consider well whether worship can compete with these things where you are. Do consider offering your Christmas Day service at evening, not just because the texts invite it, but because it might 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. Intimate does not mean, and with these texts should not 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, take advantage of 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 be a part of that!
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 and, 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.
A personal offer -- if you are near Indianapolis, IN, and want to do this service, and if you are lacking an authorized presider -- get clearance from your pastor and DS and then e-mail mail me at worship@UMCdiscipleship.org. Seriously!
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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: Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories
- Great Thanksgiving: UMBOW 56-57
- Dismissal With Blessing: UMBOW 287-288 (John)
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