The historicity of the census is unclear, but it serves to set up the contrast between the Emperor who was called “lord” and “savior,” under whom the Empire lived in “Pax Augusta,” with the child who was born in weakness who will also bear these titles and be the One who brings true peace.
Note: The Proper I readings are traditionally used on Christmas Eve; Proper III on Christmas Day. The Proper II readings have their origin in an early morning Christmas Day service often known as “The Shepherd’s Mass.”
1st Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7
In its original context, this passage is an oracle of hope for the kingdom of Judah. The first verse of chapter nine speaks of a “former time” and a “latter time.” The former time is probably the failed leadership and oppression under King Ahaz (735—715 bce). The promise is now his son, Hezekiah (715—687 bce), prophesied to be a true king of David’s line. Christians have long interpreted the “child…born for us” to be Jesus. Whatever the interpretation, this is a poetic statement of the capacity of God to bring newness out of despair, and light out of darkness.
9:2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. 3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Psalm 96 is an “enthronement psalm,” celebrating the rule of the Lord. Along with Psalms 93, 95, 97, and 99, it may have been originally used at the fall new year festival at which there was a symbolic (re-) enthronement of God. As a response to our first reading this psalm is primarily about the newness God can bring.
1 Sing to the Lord a new song; *
sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.
2 Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
3 Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.
4 For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.
5 As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the Lord who made the heavens.
6 Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!
7 Ascribe to the Lord, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the Lord honor and power.
8 Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his Name; *
bring offerings and come into his courts.
9 Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before him.
2nd Reading: Titus 2:11-14
Titus was a colleague of Paul, who had been sent on mission to Crete at the time of this letter. The letter is important because in it Paul provides a basis in theology for living in the way of Jesus. In this brief passage, Paul proclaims that the purpose of the incarnation (“God has appeared”) is to establish in us a way of life that is attentive to our actions in the present and expectant of God’s complete manifestation in the future. Note that the word translated “salvation” can also be translated “healing.”
The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
Gospel Reading: Luke 2:1-20 (only 1-7 may be used)
Luke begins his birth story by setting it in historical context. The historicity of this “registration” is unclear, but it serves to set up the juxtaposition of the Emperor who was called “lord” and “savior,” under whom the Empire lived in “Pax Augusta,” with the child who was born in weakness who will also bear these titles and be the One who brings true peace. That shepherds were the first to receive the news is an important sign that the gift of this Messiah, the Lord, is for all.
2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
1st Reading: Isaiah 62:6-12
This passage comes from the post-exile portion of Isaiah. Israel has returned to Jerusalem and the city is rebuilt. It is significant that the sentinels do not have the task of watching for enemies, but that of reminding the C to remember his promises, and to keep reminding him until the work is done! Verses 8-9 then are the Lord’s solemn oath that the promise will be fulfilled. The rest of the passage makes clear that the rebuilding of the city (and of the relationship between God and his people) is a two-way street. The Lord will do his part, but Israel must do its part. God will act, but Israel must enact. The final verse is a reiteration of the promise through the giving of a change in name. The final words are crucial for Israel’s future (and perhaps make this passage relevant to our celebration of Christmas: You will be “not forsaken.”
62:6 Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have posted sentinels; all day and all night they shall never be silent. You who remind the Lord, take no rest, 7 and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth. 8 The Lord has sworn by his right hand and by his mighty arm: I will not again give your grain to be food for your enemies, and foreigners shall not drink the wine for which you have labored; 9 but those who garner it shall eat it and praise the Lord, and those who gather it shall drink it in my holy courts. 10 Go through, go through the gates, prepare the way for the people; build up, build up the highway, clear it of stones, lift up an ensign over the peoples. 11 The Lord has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to daughter Zion, “See, your salvation comes; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” 12 They shall be called, “The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord”; and you shall be called, “Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.”
Psalm 97 is an “enthronement psalm,” celebrating the rule of the Lord. Along with Psalms 93, 95, 96, and 99, it may have been originally used at the fall new year festival at which there was a symbolic (re-) enthronement of God. As a response to our first reading this psalm is primarily about the joy brought about by God’s reign.
1 The Lord is King; let the earth rejoice; *
let the multitude of the isles be glad.
2 Clouds and darkness are round about him, *
righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne.
3 A fire goes before him *
and burns up his enemies on every side.
4 His lightnings light up the world; *
the earth sees it and is afraid.
5 The mountains melt like wax at the presence of the Lord, *
at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth.
6 The heavens declare his righteousness, *
and all the peoples see his glory.
7 Confounded be all who worship carved images
and delight in false gods! *
Bow down before him, all you gods.
8 Zion hears and is glad, and the cities of Judah rejoice, *
because of your judgments, O Lord.
9 For you are the Lord, most high over all the earth; *
you are exalted far above all gods.
10 The Lord loves those who hate evil; *
he preserves the lives of his saints
and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
11 Light has sprung up for the righteous, *
and joyful gladness for those who are truehearted.
12 Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous, *
and give thanks to his holy Name.
2nd Reading: Titus 3:4-7
Titus was a colleague of Paul, who had been sent on mission to Crete at the time of this letter. In this brief passage, Paul connects the incarnation with baptism. Both were profound acts of grace and mercy.
3:4 When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6 This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Gospel Reading: Luke 2:1-20 (see above, only 8-20 may be used)
1st Reading: Isaiah 52:7-10
In this passage there is an announcement that the Lord has acted decisively, bringing “good news” to Zion (this is Isaiah’s second use of the term “good news”—see Isaiah 40:9). The Gospel writer Mark will pick up on this announcement and use it to open his story of Jesus (Mark 1:1) and the word will come to define the story of Jesus itself (in the form “gospel”). Much is tied up in this term gospel: the return of God to an abandoned people, comfort and the promise of well-being conquering despair, and salvation which will be known to all.
52:7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” 8 Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion. 9 Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. 10 The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
Psalm 98 is a hymn to God as ruler of a universal kingdom, in which all nature gives glory to the Creator. It is a “new song” implying that there was an old song of despair, perhaps even abandonment, by God. The new song is one of victory and joy.
1 Sing to the Lord a new song, *
for he has done marvelous things.
2 With his right hand and his holy arm *
has he won for himself the victory.
3 The Lord has made known his victory; *
his righteousness has he openly shown in
the sight of the nations.
4 He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel, *
and all the ends of the earth have seen the of our God.
5 Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; *
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.
6 Sing to the Lord with the harp, *
with the harp and the voice of song.
7 With trumpets and the sound of the horn *
shout with joy before the King, the Lord.
8 Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, *
the lands and those who dwell therein.
9 Let the rivers clap their hands, *
and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord,
when he comes to judge the earth.
10 In righteousness shall he judge the world *
and the peoples with equity.
2nd Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4, [5-12]
The Letter to the Hebrews begins with a proclamation of the incarnation, which includes the notion (important to our Gospel reading today) that the Son was also the agent of creation, using language much like that used for the figure of Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures. This Son is a greater being than angels, a point which is driven home in the second portion of the passage with seven biblical quotes: Ps. 2:7, 2 Sam. 7:14, Deut, 32:43, Ps. 104.4, Ps. 45:6-7. Ps. 102:25-27 and Ps. 110:1.
1:1 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
[5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? 6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God's angels worship him.” 7 Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.” 8 But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom. 9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” 10 And, “In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands; 11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing; 12 like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.”]
Gospel Reading: John 1:1-14
Today we read not the birth story from Luke, but the poetic opening of the Gospel of John in which he proclaims that this Jesus born to a human mother was also the Word (in Greek, logos) made flesh from before the beginning of creation. John skillfully weaves together here language from the Greek notion of the primal “logos” with the Hebrew figure of Wisdom. John carefully explains the testimonial place of John the Baptist in verses six through nine. Jesus is both the Word of God and fully human. He “lived among us” (literally, “pitched his tent among us”).
1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.
The Scripture quotations (except for the psalm) are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved. The Psalm translations are from The Book of Common Prayer. Commentaries are copyright © 2016, Epiphany ESources, 67 E. Main St., Hornell, NY 14843, www.epiphanyesources.com. All rights reserved. Permission is given to copy for group study.
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