- Revised Common Lectionary Readings
- Worship Planning Notes
- Resources in The United Methodist Book of Worship
Revised Common Lectionary Readings
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé
Lecionário em português, Lecionário comum revisado
Isaiah 9:(1), 2-7 Isaiah prophesies new hope to come in his own day for the war-torn regions of Zebulun and Naphtali (see map above), the heart of Galilee. This region later 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.
Titus 2:11-14 The grace of God has appeared in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God's grace in Christ cleanses and frees us from the power of sin. This means we can become thoroughly committed to good deeds.
Luke 2:1-20 Jesus is born, angels announce this to shepherds, and Mary ponders the message of the shepherds in her heart.
Worship Planning Notes
Christmas Eve, or the Evening of Christmas. In the cultures of the Bible, the day begins not at sunrise, but sunset. In Judaism, 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 beginning 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.
Christmas Season begins.
On Christmas Eve, you will likely have a large attendance, including many visitors, some for the first time. Use this opportunity well, not simply as a “one off” special service, but as a powerful launch for the beginning of a series of services culminating in Epiphany and segueing into Baptism of the Lord and the Season after Epiphany. More guidance for this service is available under “In Your Planning Team” below, and in the article, “Christmas Season: Mystery, Martyrs and Magnificat.”
Kwanzaa resources are here. Kwanzaa begins December 26.
Other Resources for Christmas Season and Beyond
Three Ways to Celebrate Advent and Christmas Season Fully in 2015/2016
Planning for Advent and Christmas, Year C
Webinar Slides: Planning for Advent and Christmas 2015
Full Webinar: Planning for Advent and Christmas Season 2015-2016
Christmas Season (introductory article from the Book of Worship)
The Season after Epiphany (introductory article from the Book of Worship)
January 1 New Year’s Day / Holy Name of Jesus
January 3/6 Epiphany Sunday/Epiphany
January 10 Baptism of the Lord
January 11 Human Trafficking Awareness Day
January 17 Human Relations Day (Discipleship Ministries Resources)
January 18 Martin Luther King Jr. Day
January 18-25 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
January 24 Ecumenical Sunday
All Month Black History Month
February 7 Transfiguration of the Lord
February 10 Ash Wednesday, and Lent Begins
February 14 Scouting Ministries Sunday (or observe after Lent)
February 15 Presidents Day (USA)
Yet only one of the readings, the gospel story, even mentions the birth of Jesus. The rest may not seem “Christmassy.”
Perhaps that’s because our Christmas imaginations may have been shaped more by the 1965 Charlie Brown Christmas, 1940s era “standard” Christmas music, and the ways the wider US consumer culture marks Christmastime than by the biblical stories that Christians have used this night for many centuries. By the standards of these readings, perhaps it is we who may need to rethink what counts for “Christmassy.”
Isaiah puts us squarely into a war zone (the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali, “Galilee of the Gentiles”), and prophesies hope for residents who were frequently and regularly over-run by combat. The scene is nitty-gritty, hard, violent, desperate. This is an even worse place for a baby to be born than Bethlehem!
We read this story this night not to talk about light coming into the darkness in any generic or even metaphysical sense. Nor do we read it to remind us of where Jesus was born. We read it because we know this was the place where Jesus centered his own earthly ministry. The Incarnate One chose and keeps choosing to bring good news, life, and hope there, and sends his disciples to be his presence in such places here and now.
The Psalm responds well to the prophet. Again, however, we hear nothing of a baby. Instead, we join in praises befitting an adult king, either at enthronement or in celebration of a victory.
Titus nowhere mentions the birth of Jesus. We hear instead of a call to live in disciplined, reverent and godly ways because of what God has already done for us in Christ, and in view of all that will be completed at Christ’s return.
Even in Luke, the birth of Jesus, per se, is covered in at most three or four verses. The bulk of the reading focuses on the meaning and impact of the birth rather than the birth itself.
If Christmas is supposed to be primarily about the birth of Jesus, per se, why is there so relatively little attention to it in the readings for this night, which do not vary from year to year, and have been fairly constant in the lectionaries, West and East, for more than a millennium?
So if Christmas Eve and Christmas are not primarily focused on the birth of Jesus, what is it we celebrate this night?
It is the meaning and impact his birth has on the fate of all creation.
Celebrating primarily a birth can lead to an infantilizing of the faith.
Celebrating what that birth has done—as answer and fulfillment to prophecy, as God become flesh and dwelling among us, as foundation upon which the salvation and renewal of the universe exists—that may start with child-like faith, but moves us toward the maturing and mature life of faith in which we are enabled, as Titus proclaims, “to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly” (Titus 2:12, NRSV).
THAT is what Christmas Eve and the rest of Christmas Season proclaim.
So pastors and planning teams, work closely together to proclaim what this night is and means as the New Testament and the Church have proclaimed it. Help move folks away from sentimentalism toward the bold witness of the real-life impacts of the Son given to us, the peace promised to the throne of David, and light shining even in the bleakest corners of human and inhumane civilizations.
Atmospherics: The Texts
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 map 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, the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali were regularly war-ravaged. When Ephraim and Syria were at war, they regularly pitched battle in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. There were two good reasons for this. One was this avoided fighting anywhere near the capitol or major population centers of either country. The other was this land contained a strategic advantage worth fighting for. Naphtali lay directly along the trade routes leading to, from and around 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. The result was this region was very diverse, very “Gentile,” and lacking cultural, economic, social, political or religious cohesion. And that meant this region also became also a land of deep, chronic poverty and no small amount of crime. 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.
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—with reason. Light shining in the darkness, light to the Gentiles (in Simeon’s song from Luke 2)—this is what the church has always connected with this night. Comfort comes to those suffering unjustly. God pitches tent there. The body of Christ is called to do so as well.
Titus brings everything about the life of Jesus together in this text—his incarnation/ appearing (verse 11), our redemption (11, 14), our sanctification (12, 14), and his final coming again in great glory (13, 14). 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. Read it with celebration. Strongly consider preaching it this night as well.
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 likely 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.
Luke makes it clear the setting of Jesus’s birth is no accident, 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 (apparently) outdoors because there was a rush on available inn space created by the need for people in the surrounding regions to enroll in the 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’s story is no less 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 US 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 boys 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” is 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? And does the fact they did suggest Jesus may have “imprinted” on them, seeing them as persons to revere rather than despise? 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.
In Your Planning Team
It’s Christmas! There are likely to be many more people in worship, many new faces, some you haven’t seen for months or years, and some you may never see again. Hospitality matters. Make sure your planning includes a warm welcome for all who come in multiple ways. See Dan Benedict’s, Christmas Eve Hospitality: Twelve Ways to Welcome.
Precisely because this “crowd” is so “irregular” in attendance, it will be important to make worship tonight as full of familiar hymns and actions as you can. You are unlikely to “wow” these people with lots of “cutting edge” music, liturgy, or actions. These folks have come to celebrate Christmas. They may not be simply disappointed, but actually angry if you mess with that too much. See my colleague Dean McIntyre’s insightful article, “Christmas Eve Musical Hospitality.”
This doesn’t mean you can’t plan something new here or there. A slightly different arrangement of a familiar Christmas hymn, or the addition of instrumentation, a new Christmas carol sung by the choir or a soloist, or a new focus on how you preach this night, all this could be welcomed.
But unless what you have offered in the past has been seriously problematic (like drop-in or self-serve communion, for example!), don’t change up the big things. Celebrate Word and Table. Light the Advent and Christ candles. Start with “O Come Let Us Adore Him” (if that’s your usual beginning). Sing Silent Night while lighting candles. Go out on “Joy to the World” (or whatever bold, joyous Christmas hymn you typically use to conclude this service).
All of this means you should focus your efforts as a planning team on those slight tweaks that will keep this year’s service in continuity with your local traditions, while also making clear this is 2015, not 2005, 1995, or 1945!
Develop a list of your most frequently repeated Christmas Eve traditions in the order in which they occur in the service. Then go through that list, one by one, and decide as a team which should remain as is, which should be tweaked in some way (and how), which you may discontinue with impunity, and which you must discontinue (like self-serve communion, or singing too many songs about a sleeping baby Jesus, something that never once is recorded in the scriptures!).
Next, following up on the “Think Series” materials below, decide how and where in this service you can weave threads that will be picked up in services, small group meetings, activities, or personal devotional acts later in the season.
Finally, discern what one “one-off,” something you’ll do only this year, and what one new tradition, something you’ll further develop in the coming years, you want to include in this service tonight. Generally speaking, you don’t need more than one of each.
And remember two things above all. First, let tonight be both joyous and real. People should leave on a high note. And second, use tonight to launch a whole series of services and other activities through this season, and take the opportunity to invite the crowds who come to be part of each and every one of them they possibly can. They’re more likely to say Yes to your invitation if they’ve been warmly treated and feel joyous here. And they’re more likely to say, Yes, too, if instead of just announcing your series and saying, “Y’all come!” you give them real previews of what they can expect when they come—both by weaving those threads through the service tonight, and by running a “trailer video” or handing them a colorful flyer that “teases” what’s coming next. Don’t rely on just one. Plan and do both, and do both well!
Think Christmas Season Series!
Your Christmas Eve service should be a kickoff, an overture, if you will, for all of the services of the season to follow.
Overtures in an opera or a movie give a sampling of the musical and sometimes dramatic themes the opera or movie will later develop in full. Approach tonight just that way. As we’ve already suggested, build into worship not just a “trailer” you play once to invite folks to come back sometime this season, but threads you will develop further throughout the series to come.
To do that, review together the classic services of this season, outlined below. Then think about the threads and pearls you see in them. The threads are themes that weave through one or more of these services. The pearls are the distinctive focuses of each service.
As you go through this list, your team may come up with a variety of threads and multiple pearls for each service. (I hope you do!). Your task is then to narrow this down to a manageable size, something you can develop in a tangible way in this service, and in a more thorough way in the services or activities that follow. Think no more than 3-4 threads for the series, and a single pearl per service or activity.
Christmas Season: Mystery, Martyrs and Magnificat
December 24: The birth in Bethlehem pointing toward the deliverance of the whole world, beginning with “Galilee of the Gentiles”
December 25: The mystery of the incarnation. We read John’s prologue (John 1:1-14). “The word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. Light shines in the darkness, and darkness does not overcome it. And we have beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten Son of God.”
December 26: The Martyrdom of Stephen: “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:56). It may seem “un-Christmassy” to deal with a martyr on the second day of the season, but Christians have kept this day after the celebration of Nativity/Incarnation to commemorate Stephen since at least the fourth century in Jerusalem. This day is at once solemn and joyous. It recalls a violent scene of persecution and execution, not unlike, in Luke’s telling, the execution of Jesus. And it does so against the backdrop of the coming of Christ in all his glory. As such, it reveals the nature of the life the Incarnate One and his followers can expect in this age, and the age to come.
December 27: The Feast of St. John the Evangelist. We move from martyr to gospel writer and evangelist who, as history, tradition, and the gospel of John, seem to indicate, died of natural causes in old age. We know almost nothing about John the man, but in a very real way this day is less about him and more about what he proclaimed about Jesus. This is a good day for a service beginning with the prologue (John 1:1-14, recapitulating Christmas Day) and continuing with “stations” built around the “I am” stations from John’s gospel.
First Sunday of Christmas (December 27, 2015): Jesus in the Temple after his “Bar-Mitzvah”: When the ceremony of the Bar Mitzvah was formally developed within Judaism until well into the Middle Ages, the typical age for this ritual that recognized a male as an adult with the Jewish community was 12. That is the age of Jesus in this week’s gospel lesson when he stayed behind after Passover to enter the scholarly debate of the rabbis at the temple. God becoming flesh meant Jesus entered this debate as soon as he could and would redefine the interpretation of the Bible for his first disciples and generations of disciples to come. While Luke does not tell us the specifics of his questions and answers here, we get a good clue from his sermon at Nazareth, which we will read during the season after Epiphany: God is now bringing good news of deliverance especially to the poor, the enemy and the marginalized.
December 28: The Feast of the Holy Innocents: Another “un-Christmassy” feel, this day commemorates the male infants and children slaughtered throughout Judea and Galilee by order of Herod the Great at news of the birth of “the King of the Jews.” We join “Rachel weeping for her children,” but also are challenged and strengthened to remember the seriousness of the spiritual and physical stakes of citizenship in the kingdom of God set loose in the birth of Jesus. This year, Holy Innocents falls the day after the First Sunday of Christmas. Particularly if you live in a community that has either struggled with or effectively ignored violence in your midst, you may wish to choose which emphasis you will address on this Sunday.
December 31/January 1: Feast of the Holy Name, remembering the circumcision and official naming of Jesus eight days after his birth. New Year’s Eve/Watchnight/Holy Name of Jesus/New Year’s Day resources are also available.
January 6 (or January 4) Epiphany: Epiphany culminates the Christmas Season with the celebration of the coming of the Magi, a sign the heavens themselves were declaring the glory of Jesus for all the world to see.
Do you have your threads narrowed down? Have you identified the pearls? Now, decide which of these may call for whole services (Christmas Day, First Sunday of Christmas (Innocents OR Presentation), Holy Name (New Year), which may call for smaller gatherings or activities (Christmas Day, Stephen) and which may be kept individually or in homes (John the Evangelist, Stephen).
Then plan out each service, being sure in each one to provide links to the previous and the next, and to the series as a whole.
This is a rich, deep, season, inexhaustible in its possibilities. Do all you can this year to plumb those depths with and for your worshiping community.
Resources in The United Methodist Book of Worship (BOW) with links and other suggestions
Call to Worship: BOW 213, "Christ is Born" (Luke)
Greeting: BOW 271 (Luke)
Greeting: BOW 273 (Titus)
Opening Prayer: BOW 276 (Luke)
Blessing of the Nativity Scene: BOW 280
WORD AND RESPONSE
Canticle: UMH 83, "Canticle of God's Glory" (Luke)
Alternate Response to Canticle: UMH 72, "Gloria, Gloria" (Luke)
Prayer: UMH 231, "Christmas" (Titus)
Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Ghana, Nigeria
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