For Dec. 24, 2013: Christmas Eve (Christmas I)

The Reading            Isaiah 9:2-7

What astonishing news Isaiah announces: to people who have been in deepest darkness and sorrow, oppressed and the victims of war, there now come light and joy, liberation, and peace! The new king is most probably Hezekiah of Judah, righteous son of unrighteous Ahaz, but we hear these words as a prophecy of Jesus.

The Response            Psalm 96

Psalms 90 to 106 are called the “enthronement psalms”: they celebrate God’s glory. Like the others, Psalm 96 was written in the sixth century before Christ during the difficult days of the exile in Babylon. It praises the God of Israel as the one true God, maker of heaven and earth, before whom the very trees shout for gladness.

The Epistle            Titus 2:11-14

The letter to Titus sounds short and blunt after the soaring poetry of Isaiah 9:2-7 and Psalm 96, but it packs a great deal of theological content into a very small compass. Here it reminds us of the coming of Jesus at the end of the world, and of how we should be living while we wait.

The Gospel            Luke 2:1-20

The gospel of Luke tells the story of how Jesus of Nazareth came to be born in Bethlehem and his birth announced. The story is so familiar that it is hard not to take mangers and shepherds and angels for granted—but it is miraculous, and it begins to prepare the way for the greater miracle of Easter.

 

Ponderables

The Revised Common Lectionary presents three sets of readings for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Each of the readings in the first set, taken literally, contains nonsense. Isaiah announces that the throne of David is about to be secure forever and that endless peace is about to begin—though, for most of the almost 2600 years since then, Israel itself has had no Davidic king and war seems to be what makes the world go ’round. Psalm 96 suggests that there are other gods and offers the spacier-than-Disney spectacle of plants and trees shouting for joy. As for Luke, real virgins just don’t go around having babies, real men don’t agree to raise the kids their fiancées have just conceived by someone else, and real shepherds stinking of lanolin and sheep poo don’t get serenaded by an army of angels or invited to admire a perfect stranger’s new baby. And the otherwise sober-looking passage from the letter to Titus makes the quite extraordinary claim that what makes God’s people good with God isn’t what we do: it is quite simply grace, because God feels like it.

What makes all of these things true is Jesus. The dreams-come-true king that Isaiah foretold to troubled Israelites is the God of the psalm whose righteousness makes “heaven and nature sing” is the virgin-born baby with the shepherd admirers is the man dying on the cross for our redemption. As the angels sing, so may we:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

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