For Dec. 24, 2015: Christmas Eve (Christmas I)

The Reading                                                              Isaiah 9:2-7

This early prophecy of Isaiah was supposed to motivate King Ahaz to have faith: the child foretold is most probably his son Hezekiah, who did indeed rule righteously in God’s sight. We read it as predicting the birth of Jesus the Messiah. May he hear these words of light, joy, liberation, and peace, and help bring them to pass.

The Response                                                             Psalm 96

Psalm 96 is an enthronement psalm that was written in the sixth century before Christ, after Isaiah’s prophecy of the Son born to us and 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 rocks and trees shout for gladness.

The Epistle                                                                  Titus 2:11-14

Isaiah poetically looked forward to the coming of a savior to rescue Israel. The letter of Titus, written several centuries later, looks backward and forward: Jesus has appeared to redeem all peoples, including us, and it is up to us to live the lives and do the good deeds that show we are his.

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 to the lowly shepherds. 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.

 

Further thoughts

Unsurprisingly, most of the hymns that we sing on Christmas Eve celebrate the Christ Child by name. One very famous hymn, however, does not: “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” This hymn began as a poem, “Peace on Earth,”[1] written by the Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, D.D. for a Sunday school Christmas celebration in 1849 and published late that year.[2] The original poem has five stanzas; hymnals pretty universally print verses 1, 2, and 5 and typically drop either verse 3 (e.g. the United Methodist Hymnal (1989) and the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), or verse 4 (The Hymnal 1972). Here are verses 3 and 4 as Sears wrote them:

3.

But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring; –
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

4. And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing; –
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!

This poem, which has been called one of the earliest social-gospel hymns,[3] is very much a product of its contentious times. By the end of 1849, the Mexican-American War had been over for less than two years. The war added Mexico’s lands west of Texas to the U.S., sharpening the increasingly acrimonious national debate on allowing slavery in new territories seeking admission as states—including California. Californians overwhelmingly preferred “free state” status: beyond the fact that Mexico had forbidden slavery since 1829, some found slavery loathsome, and others seem to have believed that swinging a pickax in the goldfields was more degrading alongside a slave. Admitting California as a free state meant giving the free states a majority of two votes in the U.S. Senate, thus encouraging hopes of abolition and making the Civil War even more inevitable.

In addition to war and slavery, Sears may also have been motivated by concerns closer to home. The congregations he served as a Unitarian minister were a handful of miles from Lowell, MA, the so-called cradle of the U.S. Industrial Revolution. The “mill girls” or “factory girls” , most between the ages of 16 and 36, worked in Lowell’s groundbreaking textile mills. They labored an average of 73 hours per week, deafened by the racket of mill machinery and half-choked by lint in the air, at tasks that were simultaneously exhausting and mindless. In 1844 they formed the first women’s labor union to demand a ten-hour workday[4] —unsuccessfully: not until the 1870s did the Massachusetts legislature pass such a law.

165 years later, slavery as such is gone from the U.S., but its legacy in racism and discrimination persists; workplaces are undeniably safer than in the 1840s, but income inequality in the U.S. is greater than ever and climbing.[5] It is good to adore the infant Jesus at his birth—but it is also fitting to remember the birth of the infant Jesus–but it is also fitting to pause and remember with Titus that the kingdom of God is not yet fully established on Earth and that we ourselves have work to do to see that it is.

 

[1] ‪Nutter, Charles Sumner, Hymn Studies: An Illustrated and Annotated Edition of the Hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 4th ed. (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1900), p. 80. http://books.google.com/books?id=UDLNEiK7KvkC&oe=UTF-8. Accessed 21 December 2014.

[2] Anderson, Douglas D., “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” The Hymns and Carols of Christmas, 25 May 2012? http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/it_came_upon_the_midnight_clear.htm. Accessed 21 December 2014. Anderson’s site is a really excellent resource for Christmas hymns, carols, and poetry.

[3] Hawn, C. Michael, “History of Hymns: ‘It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,’” (n.d.), GBOD Equipping World-Changing Disciples, http://www.gbod.org/resources/history-of-hymns-it-came-upon-a-midnight-clear. Accessed 21 December 2014. Hawn is quoting Carlton Young, editor of the United Methodist Hymnal.

[4] Dublin, Thomas C. “Women, Work, and Protest In the Early Lowell Mills: ‘The Oppressing Hand of Avarice Would Enslave Us’,” Labor History 16 (1975):99-116. Online at Whole Cloth: Discovering Science and Technology through American History, Smithsonian Institution, http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u2ei/u2materials/dublin.html. Consulted 22 December 2014.

[5] Quoctrung Bui, “40 Years of Income Inequality in America, in Graphs,” NPR Planet Money: Demography, 2 October 2014, http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2014/10/02/349863761/40-years-of-income-inequality-in-america-in-graphs. Consulted 22 December 2014.

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