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). (UMH 801).
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 may be thoroughly committed to good deeds.
Jesus is born, angels announce this to shepherds, and Mary ponders the message of the shepherds in her heart.
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. With sunset, then, we begin the Christmas celebration and leave Advent. After the Easter Vigil (Easter Eve, if you will), this is the most holy night in the church's celebration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Back to top.
Now is the time for all the Christmas trappings to come out in full force, but keep the Lord's Table for its proper uses, please! Add other tables or stands for decorations alongside it if you wish.
If you have a crche, now is the time to place the baby in the manger. 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!
But as you plan to bring out the Christmas trappings, do think through and help your worship leaders and congregation 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 the texts for this service, not just to enhance a cultural "Christmas feeling." Scripture first, culture second.
Today, you have the opportunity to share the good news of all 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 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, Zebulun and Naphtali were war-ravaged because when Ephraim and Syria wanted to fight, which happened with some frequency, that's where they fought. 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 throw all sorts of people who barely belonged together and kept them all in deep poverty. The historical reality of darkness there was the "terror by night and the arrow that flies by day" (Psalm 91) and the ongoing darkness of living among ruins all the time -- except, perhaps if you were in one of the newer Roman army occupation towns in the region of the Decapolis, such as Caesarea was in Jesus' day (see photo above). 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 Simeons song from Luke) -- this is what the church has always connected with this night. Comfort comes to those who need it, not to those who have it! So be sure 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.
Back to top.
p> 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 (or chant!) it this night in praise of all that 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, but rather the beginning of our ongoing redemption and sanctification. God's power to transform our lives here and now as we practice good deeds.
What good deeds does you congregation engage in because of that birth and in connection with it, especially at this season of the year? What more good deeds might you be doing that others are doing? Project images of these, or find a way to bring signs of these into the worship space as this text is read.
Back to top.
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 Special" in U.S. culture. Most "Christmas stuff" that is used to decorate churches and homes has some connection to this story, even more 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 the 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 -- ordinary day (and night!) laborers, not "important people" in the region.
As you and your worship planning team mull over these texts, what common themes among them or linking them AND what's happening in your worshiping community and the larger community and world come to mind? 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, and ritual actions and prayers to offer this night in word, song, and around the Lord's table.
Do not neglect to make those connections, and make them seamlessly clear, more by showing than telling, throughout worship this night.
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.
Back to top.
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 laid in a manger is NOT the theme of this celebration, but 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 (for example, 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 -- and do offer Communion every time.
Plan for music that visitors and members of those who will 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
Back to top.
- 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)
- Great Thanksgiving for Christmas Eve: UMBOW, 56-57
Back to top.