Planning - Christmas Eve
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.
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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 for all the Christmas trappings to come out in full force. Keep the Lord's Table set for its proper uses, decked with white and/or gold paraments. Add other tables or stands for decorations alongside it if you wish.
If you have a crche, this service is the time to place the baby in the manger, perhaps as part of the Entrance (opening movement of worship). If you have a Christmas tree, turn the lights on full blast! Light the Christ candle if you have an Advent Wreath. Fill the space with the sounds of joyous Christmas songs. Christ is born today! Alleluia!
As you consider which Christmas trappings to bring out, think through the connections between the decorations and the readings for this service. Some may connect; others may not. Some may support the readings; others may really get in the way or send mixed messages. Use the "trappings" intentionally to help your congregation have a deeper experience of the good news of the incarnation as revealed in and through ALL of the texts for this service, not just to enhance a cultural "Christmas feeling." Scripture first, culture second.
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 war-ravaged because when Ephraim and Syria wanted to fight, which happened with some frequency, that's where they fought. It was a good "middle ground," and whoever controlled Naphtali controlled the trade on the Sea of Galilee. Later, through the time of Jesus, this territory was nicknamed "Galilee of the Gentiles," so-called because it was where the powers that be in the region had continued to resettle all sorts of persons who barely belonged together. These people did not speak the same languages or share similar cultures or religions. These significant divides made it difficult for people to trade or gain prosperity. 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, poverty -- these may seem 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 who have it by comparison! 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.
And note for whom we pray this night, if it is night. In the ecumenical cycle of prayer, we pray for Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon, places that figure prominently in the story of our ancestors in the faith and contemporary Christian, Jewish and Muslim siblings, and places where the so-called "Arab Spring" is still awaiting full flower.
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 the final coming again of Christ 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 you 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 U.S. culture. Most "Christmas stuff" that is used to decorate churches and homes in the "white" U.S. cultures (though not in other cultures and countries) has more connection to Luke's story of the angels and shepherds than to Matthew's story of the wise men.
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 "important people" in the region.
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 significant 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 means that Luke is telling us Jesus still have been in the hyper-alert state when the shepherds arrived? Indeed, Luke does not say Jesus was sleeping when they arrived! (We may be likely to infer that, but the text does not state it.) If so, perhaps Luke is telling us that the angels notified these shepherds in time for the newborn Jesus to imprint on them. 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 the 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.
Be sure to make those connections clear more by showing than telling throughout worship this night.
As you are planning the services of this special night, take note of how many Christmas hymns concern trying to get 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!
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.
How many and what kind of services will you plan for Christmas Eve? Perhaps you already have a tradition of several services. A number of mid-size and larger congregations offer an early service for families with young children and a later choral service with Holy Communion and candle lighting.
Since there is still a strong interest in the culture at large to participate in worship on Christmas Eve, consider adding a service that welcomes and engages all kinds of people in the festival of Christ's nativity. Offer Communion every time.
Plan for music that visitors and members who gather at these various times are likely to know and love and be able to offer cheerfully and at full voice. Plan not to introduce a lot of new and unfamiliar music. The novelty may amuse some, but it will frustrate many for this service.
Worship in ways that will enable people to experience the hope, wonder, and light of Christ for the hurt and yearnings of contemporary shepherds including those who tend stores, gas stations, and hospital rooms.
And practice "extravagant hospitality"! Prepare your "regulars" for this! This is not a night for members of the congregation to move over grudgingly to allow space for the strangers who come. Indeed, we are all strangers to this incredible good news of great joy for all the people. Plan for the liturgy to be celebrated lavishly.
For more specific suggestions about hospitality on Christmas Eve, 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
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- 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 (if after sundown), Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (if after sundown)
- 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)