Friday, December 23, 2011

The Reflectionary: Scripture for Worship on Christmas Eve

The Revised Common Lectionary isn't just a guide to Scripture passages for Sunday worship. It also has suggested scriptures for other important days on the church calendar. Sometimes these special days are called "festivals." Christmas Eve is one such "festival" celebrated with a special worship gathering by many Presbyterian churches. As such, I thought it might be helpful to use this Friday's slot (the last on which I'll be featuring "Reflectionary" posts for the foreseeable future) to discuss the scripture passages for Christmas Eve worship. These passages are the same every year, as opposed to following the three-year cycle of most Revised Common Lectionary readings. As usual, all links are to the CEB via, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the drop-down menu at

Long-time and especially dedicated readers among you may recognize most of the text here as being identical to the podcast version I've linked to in the past (although there I'm still using the now-defunct TNIV). If you are such a person, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for your continuing support. And to everyone, a very Merry Christmas!

Isaiah 9:2-7
  • These verses, and especially the words of verse 6, are very familiar to us as Christians as a prophecy regarding the coming of Christ. For myself, every time I read this passage, I not only remember the better-known King James translation, but I tend to have the relevant portion of Handel’s Messiah go though my head. These verses are very much a part of our Christian heritage, and we cannot help but interpret them through the light of Christ’s coming.

    But I’d like to invite you to go through these verses again. This time, try to imagine what this passage might have meant to the follower of God who heard these words in the centuries before Jesus’s birth. What kind of a world do these verses speak to? What darkness did the people see themselves as walking in? What oppression might they envision being freed from? What would the names “Wonderful Counselor, Might God, Everlasting Father,” and “Prince of Peace” have sounded like to such ears? How do the answers to these questions speak to how we look at Jesus Christ today?
Psalm 96:1-13

Titus 2:11-14
  • I mentioned earlier that the lectionary readings for the Christmas Eve worship gathering are the same every year. But while it's fairly easy to figure out why the passage from Isaiah was included for Christmas Eve worship, this passage from Titus seems out of place. There are no popular Christmas songs around this passage. It doesn't talk about Jesus' birth. Why do you think it was included as a part of the annual Christmas worship tradition?
  • The author draws a contrast between this present age and the hope of the age to come, but actually spends more time talking about how Christians are to act in this present age. What kinds of acts of self-control and upright living do you think the author intends for Christians to live out? If the salvation of Jesus Christ redeems us from all wickedness, and makes us eager to do what is good, why do we still struggle against these noble impulses? What might still need to happen for us to do the good we know we are called to do?
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
  • The Revised Common Lectionary considers verses 15-20 optional. Churches may use the entire reading, or stop with verse 14, at their discretion.
  • “That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Since I was a child, I’ve had something of a tradition, after this passage was read, of remembering that quote from Linus from the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas special. The next time you watch that cartoon (although I think we've already missed the network broadcast for this year), check out his monologue. He’s quoting this passage from the King James version, starting with verse 8, and ending with verse 14.
  • Although this is perhaps one of the most familiar passages of the Bible, it has so many details in it that pastors and priests seem to be able to find new ways to preach on this passage every year. One year, they might talk about the details of the Roman Census. Another year, they might talk about how poorly shepherds were regarded in those days. Yet another year, they might talk about what the experience of hearing from a host of angels must have felt like. I'd like to encourage you to imagine yourself in this story. If you were any one of the characters involved in the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, what might have been going through your mind? How would you have responded? Why should the coming of a little baby into the world have meant so much?

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