Planning - Christmas Eve
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Isaiah 9: (1), 2-7.
Isaiah speaks of new hope to come in his own day for the war-torn regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, the heart of Galilee, which became the center of the ministry of Jesus.
Psalm response: Psalm 96 (UMH 815).
A psalm of jubilant praise for the glorious reign of God! If you want a chant tone for the provided response, try B-D-G-B; E-C-B-A. Or use the refrain from "O Come, Let Us Adore Him" (UMH 234) and, for chanting, G-F#-A-G; B-A-C-B in G-major.
The grace of God has appeared in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God's grace in Christ continues to cleanse and free us from the power of sin. This means we can become thoroughly committed to good deeds.
Jesus is born, angels announce this to shepherds, and Mary ponders the message of the shepherds in her heart.
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Christmas Eve or the Evening of Christmas. In the cultures of the Bible, the day begins not at sunrise, but sunset. This is why Sabbath begins on Friday at sunset. Christians continue to commemorate this ancient way of telling time in the various "Eve" services of the year, including All Saints Eve, The Great Vigil of Easter (Easter Eve) and the beginning of the daily office with evening prayer. With sunset on December 24, Advent ends and Christmas begins. After the Easter Vigil (Easter Eve), this is the holiest night in the church's celebration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We celebrate tonight God in our midst -- not simply long ago and certainly not "once upon a time," but in all times and all places through the promise and the gift of Jesus Christ, God incarnate.
Now is the time to bring out all the Christmas decorations for your worship space. Light the Christ candle in the Advent wreath if you have one of those. And deck the space with trees, greenery, lights, and white or gold paraments, banners, and vestments -- whatever you have. If you have a crche, consider placing the infant Jesus in the manger as part of the Entrance (opening movement of worship). However you decorate, keep the font and Table accessible for their sacramental purposes.
So what will you bring out for this service of Christmas Eve? Consider how whatever you use relates to the readings for this particular service and its readings from Isaiah, Titus and Luke.
Tonight, you have the opportunity to share the good news of all of these texts with folks who may otherwise rarely be part of your worshiping congregation.
With the reading from Isaiah, remember that while we read it as a prophecy about Jesus coming to counter "darkness" metaphorically, the connections to the land in verse 1 were real and historical.
Look at the maps above. Notice where Zebulun and Naphtali were located. They sat geographically between the capital of Israel (Samaria, in Ephraim), and the Syrian border (labeled Arameans on the map).
In the days of Isaiah, Zebulun and Naphtali were regularly war-ravaged. Whenever Ephraim and Syria wanted to fight, which happened with some frequency, that's where they fought so as not to put their own land or people at so much risk, and because of the strategic location of Naphtali on the trade route to the Sea of Galilee.
Later, and up through the time of Jesus, this territory was nicknamed "Galilee of the Gentiles." While it had been the "war zone" in earlier years, in later years it became the "dumping ground" for whichever power wanted to resettle other people or groups there. The result was this region was very diverse, very "Gentile," and lacking in any kind of cultural, economic, social, political or religious cohesion. And that meant this region also became also a land of deep, chronic poverty. The only significant exceptions to this fairly bleak existence were in the newer Roman army towns in the region of the Decapolis, such as Caesarea in Jesus' day.
All of this is critical to understanding why Jesus spent so much of his ministry in Galilee, so that in this land of "deep darkness," the light of the kingdom of God may shine first and brightest.
War, violence, forced resettlements onto "reservations," poverty -- these are miles away from popular cultural images for Christmas. But the church has read this text on this night for over 1500 years. Light shining in the darkness, light to the Gentiles (in Simeon's song from Luke) -- this is what the church has always connected with this night. Comfort comes to those who truly need it, not to those already who have it! So consider how to include images of war-ravaged places and especially places that have been ravaged again and again over time as you plan and as you develop imagery for worship for this night.
Titus brings everything about the life of Jesus together in this text -- his incarnation, our redemption, the work of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us, and his final coming again in great glory. No other text in the Bible connects all these themes so compactly. We read it this night in praise of all God has done for us and among us by becoming human in Jesus Christ.
Because of its grand sweep, the reading from Titus never lets us sentimentalize the birth of Jesus. That birth is not the endpoint of tonight's celebration, as one would find in pagan celebrations of the birth of a god. Instead, the birth is recognized as but the beginning of our ongoing redemption and sanctification.
How do you and your worshiping community experience Christ enabling you to live lives that are upright, self-controlled, and godly? How does Christ enable you not merely to avoid, but positively to renounce all forms of impiety and "worldly passions," and so live freed from their power? Who among you can rejoice in being set free from these things? How will you rejoice in congregational song or prayer about such deliverance?
What good deeds does your congregation pursue zealously because of that birth and in connection with it, especially at this season of the year? Project images of these, or find a way to bring signs of these into the worship space as this text is read or preached.
The story of the birth of Jesus from Luke is probably the most popular and well-known among the Christmas readings, both in church and, thanks to "A Charlie Brown Christmas" in US culture.
The deep familiarity of this story brings opportunities and challenges. Like a bedtime story you tell small children, those who come this night want to hear this story told a certain way. Do not mess with these expectations too much -- just enough to call attention to an element of this story that perhaps has not been emphasized in past telling in your worshiping community, or an area you intend to emphasize in tonight's celebration.
Note, too, that this story pays relatively little attention to the birth of Jesus and much more attention to the setting for the birth (a forced "enrollment" to increase the tax rolls to support Rome's war efforts) and the announcement of its occurrence and its meaning to shepherds -- "lower class" agricultural laborers, not the "important people" in the region mentioned at the beginning of the reading.
Talk with your worship planning team about the setting for Jesus' birth. It is very clear from Luke's gospel that this was no accident of history, but at the heart of God's will. Jesus is born in Bethlehem because the government was seeking to increase revenues for its wars. He was born outdoors because there was a rush on available inn space created by the need for people in the surrounding regions to enroll in town. The Son of God is born in the hometown of his ancestor David, to be sure, but precisely into the midst of and fully exposed to the most powerful force of human oppression and military force known in that region up to that time. Though it is Matthew who develops the story of just how violent the powers could be (Herod's command for the execution of all male infants in the region), Luke is fully cognizant of the oppressive and violent potential in the story he tells.
The haste of the shepherds (verse 16, if you read this far) may be a case in point of Luke's medical knowledge helping him to make theological commentary. When babies are first born, they are typically extraordinarily alert for the first 60-90 minutes. This extreme alertness enables them to "imprint" on the first people and things they encounter. In many birthing settings in the U.S. today, babies are quickly whisked away from their mothers and significant others for a host of initial tests, so many of us in our culture do not get to observe this initial hyper-alertness. (Both of my children were born with midwives assisting, so we did!) This was not the case in Luke's day, nor is it the case in many places around the world today. Instead, this initial alertness prior to a first "nap" are spent in intensive bonding with mother, infant, and family. Even when the child is "put down," the child does not initially sleep.
So, is it possible that Luke's note about the haste the shepherds took indicates they were trying to see the infant Jesus while he was still in this hyper-alert state? Such a reading would be quite compatible with Luke's portrayal of Jesus having a strong affinity for the needs of the poor and outcast.
As you and your worship planning team mull over these texts, what common themes among them or linking them come to mind? How do these common themes connect with what's happening in your worshiping community and the larger community and world? How is the sacred story across all four texts (including Psalm!) describing or speaking to what's happening in your midst here and now? Find those "bridge images," and you'll have raw material for artwork, music, ritual actions and prayers to offer this night in word, song, and around the Lord's Table.
Jesus asleep in a manger is not the theme of this celebration. The theme is God born among us to redeem us now and in the age to come.
As you are planning the services of this special night, take note of how many Christmas hymns try to get the baby Jesus to sleep. Contrast that with the tone of rejoicing in God's deliverance (Isaiah and Psalm 96) and the call for self-renunciation, self-control, and doing ever more good works because the one who has come continues to work for our redemption until we face him as our judge (Titus) -- hardly a call for sleep on our part (or Christ's) at all!
Musical, Liturgical and Real Hospitality
Christmas Eve is a time when many congregations can expect many guests. So be ready to be hospitable!
Hospitality comes in many forms. Musically, pick songs people are likely to know, love, and want to sing. Liturgically, the familiar may be more welcome than the "novel." And because the worship space may be more crowded than usual, it's important to make sure your "regulars" are prepared to make room for the guests, rare-comers, and newcomers who may show up this night.
For more specific suggestions, about hospitality on Christmas Eve, see see "Christmas Eve Hospitality: Twelve Ways to Welcome" and "Christmas Eve Musical Hospitality."
See specific special service helps in The United Methodist Book of Worship (UMBOW):
- "A Christmas Eve Service of Las Posadas," UMBOW, 281
- A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols," UMBOW, 284
- Call to Worship: UMBOW, 213, "Christ is Born" (Luke)
- Greeting: UMBOW, 271 (Luke)
- Greeting: UMBOW, 273 (Titus)
- Opening Prayer: UMBOW, 276 (Luke)
- Blessing of the Nativity Scene: UMBOW, 280
- Canticle: United Methodist Hymnal, 83, "Canticle of God's Glory" (Luke)
- Alternate Response to Canticle: United Methodist Hymnal, 72, "Gloria, Gloria" (Luke)
- Prayer: United Methodist Hymnal, 231, "Christmas" (Titus)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Ghana, Nigeria
- Great Thanksgiving for Christmas Eve: UMBOW, 56-57
From Worship & Song
- "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," 3052 (Luke)
- "Bethlehem," 3053 (Luke)
- "Gloria en las Alturas," 3057 (Luke)
- "Jesus, Jesus, O What a Wonderful Child," 3061 (Luke, Titus)
- "See Him Lying on a Bed of Straw," 3061 (Luke, Titus)
- "Spirit-Child Jesus," 3062 (Luke, Titus)
- "On Christmas Night," 3064 (Luke, Titus, Isaiah, verse 4)
- "Welcome to Our World," 3067 (Luke, Titus)
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