Planning - Christmas Day
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Leccionario en Espaol, Leccionario Comn Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes. Para obtener ms recursos leccionario, Estudios Exegtico: Homilticos.
The LORD returns to Jerusalem. The exile is over. "All the ends of the earth shall see our 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.
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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 celebrated 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 late afternoon or early evening just before sundown. This is part of the reason the readings selected include references to glory and the light of Christ shining in the darkness.
If you read the lessons assigned for this service, you will find angels (but not offering hymns), no shepherds, no stables, no Bethlehem, no wise men and even no birth story. And there's nothing particularly wintry at all. So where's Christmas?
These specific readings for the third mass of Christmas Day have a history that stretches back to at least 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), to focus on the larger historical and cosmic implications of the incarnation.
Given these texts, talk with your worship planning team about what makes sense in terms of time, location and visual environment for this service. The reading from John, in particular, lends itself 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, as you did for Christmas Eve, think through what "Christmas trappings" make the most sense to feature in your worship space for this particular service. Do you need a crche or other "birth-story" decorations as part of the dcor? Maybe not so much! Strong images from these texts include light shining in darkness (John), Jesus exalted above angels (Hebrews, as in the image above), God pitching tent among us (John), or joy in the midst of the ruins (Isaiah). And do not leave out the truly cosmic implications of Jesus rolling up the heavens like a cloak and completely changing them (Hebrews 1:12). You may not want to remove other elements (crches and greenery, for example), but do 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. Many in the United States, Haiti, Japan, and New Zealand in recent months and years know what it is like to see homes and hometowns left in ruins by by floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, massive snowfalls from superstorms, tornadoes, fires, droughts, economic instability, or other means. 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.
Note the first call of the prophet is to rejoice in the midst of the ruins! 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 (verse 10). So, how have you helped proclaim good news and rejoice 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 them 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 read in such a way as to help your congregation allow the grandeur and the beauty of these images wash over and begin to 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 persons 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. Light at twilight appears to fade for a time, but it is not ultimately overcome. Instead it is 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 in the face of Jesus Christ, even on the edge of our darkness.
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. Consider well whether worship can compete with these things where you are. Strongly 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 (if indoors) or voices rising in volume (if outdoors) 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), "Jesus, the Light of the World" (Worship & Song, 3056), 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, AME, AME Zion, CME, and 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 I make every year-- 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 [email protected]. Seriously!
- 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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