Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
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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 (see maps above), 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 cleanses and frees 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 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 begins. Over these next two weeks, think series, and think of Christmas Eve as the beginning of a series of services culminating in Epiphany and segueing into Baptism of the Lord. See more on this below under "In Your Planning Team."
Discipleship Ministries's Kwanzaa resources are available on the Discipleship Ministries Planning Calendar.
New Year’s Eve/Watchnight/Holy Name of Jesus/New Year’s Day resources are also available, along with our planning helps for this time.
Coming up in January on the UM Program Calendar
Human Trafficking Awareness Day (UMW Resources)
Ecumenical Sunday in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Human Relations Day
Martin Luther King Birthday
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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 to bring out all the Christmas decorations for your worship space. Light the Christ candle in the Advent wreath. And deck the space with trees, greenery, lights, and white or gold paraments, banners, and vestments—whatever you have. If you have a crèche, 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. Do it well. Don’t gloss over the texts for the sake of "Christmassy feeling." Read them well. Help people encounter them deeply, less by explaining and more by upholding the sense of wonder and mystery they each contain. The Incarnation is a mystery. Plan worship to leave people grappling with mystery and longing for more.
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, they chose to do so in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. There were two good reasons for this. One was this avoided fighting on the "home turf" 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 in any kind of cultural, economic, social, political or religious cohesion. And that meant this region also became 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 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!
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 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.
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 to 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.
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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 planning for 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.
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 2013, not 2012, 1992, or 1952!
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!
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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 of no more than 3-4 threads for the series, and a single pearl per service or activity.
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.
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.
First Sunday of Christmas (December 29, 2013): The Flight into Egypt. The order may seem a bit reversed, but this is because Holy Innocents is always on December 27 (in the West) while the date of the First Sunday of Christmas may vary. This day is a day of praise for revelation and protection, for freedom even in the midst of the ancestral land of slavery from fear of death (Hebrews 2:15), and for Christ’s own identification with all who find themselves displaced by threats of violence.
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, along with our planning helps for this time.
January 6 (or Sunday nearest) 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, plan out which of these may call for whole services (Christmas Day, First Sunday of Christmas, Holy Name, perhaps), which may call for smaller gatherings or activities (Christmas Day, Stephen, Innocents) and which may be kept individually or in homes (John the Evangelist, Stephen).
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.
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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
Great Thanksgiving for Christmas Eve: UMBOW, 56-57
From Worship & Song—
- "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" (3052), Luke
- "Bethlehem" (3053), Luke
- "Gloria en las Altura"s (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
Alternative Services for Christmas Eve or Season
- "A Christmas Eve Service of Las Posadas," UMBOW, 281
- "A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols," UMBOW, 284
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