Archive for the 'Christmas' Category

For Dec. 28, 2014: Holy Name of Jesus

The Reading                                                            Numbers 6:22-27

The book of Numbers, named for the first census of the Israelites after their departure from Egypt, tells their journey from the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula to the land of Moab on the east side of the Jordan. Here the Lord explains how the priests of Aaron are to bless God’s people: by putting God’s name on them.

The Response                                                           Psalm 8

Psalm 8 responds to God’s activity in Creation with wonder and praise. The God whose Word creates (as one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it) “galaxies, suns, the planets in the courses, and this fragile Earth” is the God who bends low to you and me—and the God who calls us to care just as tenderly for Earth and its resources.

The Epistle                                                               Philippians 2:5-11

Philippians 2:5-11 may be a very ancient hymn of the Church. This luminous passage names Jesus as God and human, humbled and then exalted, with the Name to which every knee shall bow as we saints below join in praise with the saints above, world without end.

The Gospel                                                               Luke 2:15-21

As Luke tells it, angels impart the great good news of the birth of the Savior to shepherds, and these rough outsiders hasten to adore him. Eight days later, in accordance with Jewish law (Genesis 17:9-14), the boy is circumcised and given the name Jesus, as the angel had told Mary in Luke 1:31 (and Joseph in Matthew 1:21).

 

Further thoughts

The feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is celebrated on January 1, eight days after Christmas Day; the timing reflects the practice of circumcising and formally naming a baby Jewish boy on the eighth day of his life in accordance with the Torah. This feast day raises some interesting issues in naming and inclusion.

In both tellings of the Annunciation, the angel tells one of the child’s earthly parents to name him Jesus. Matthew 1:21 adds a bit: the angel says, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The comment makes sense in Hebrew: the name would be Yeshua, a shortening of Yehoshua, which combines the YHW– element that refers to the Lord with a verb that means ‘deliver, save, rescue’. The name was then rendered into Greek (in which there is no “sh” sound, and the letter y is used solely as a vowel) as Iēsous Ιησουσ, with an –s suffix to make it masculine gender and a long e pronounced as in Spanish. Latin adopted this as Iesus.

As lower-case scripts emerged in Europe, a “swash” form of the letter I, with a curly tail, came into use at the beginning of a word before a vowel, yielding the occasional spelling Jesus. This letter J was not a fully separate letter in English until the 17th century, however, so the first edition of the King James Bible (1611) still spells the name Iesus. By that time, the French shift in pronunciation from “y” to “soft g” before a vowel, in progress as of the beginning of the twelfth century, had become standard in English. All that remained to produce the current pronunciation of Jesus was the Great Vowel Shift that has given English long e the pronunciation it has today.

Jesus has two other titles of interest: Messiah and Christ. We tend to think of Messiah as meaning ‘savior’, but the Aramaic word meshiach, borrowed into Greek and then Roman as messias, means ‘anointed’. It turns out that Christ means the same thing: it comes from Greek khristos ‘anointed one’. Jesus was first called crist (no H, no capitalization) in English no later than 830 AD; speakers of Old English were likelier to call Jesus Hæland ‘savior’ or more literally ‘healer’. Of course, none of those is a name he was given at birth.

Circumcision according to the Torah marks a boy as fully a Jew, a member of the community. It also marks Jesus as fully human and submissive to the Law. The apostle Paul—also a Jew who had been circumcised—concluded that circumcision was not necessary for Gentiles. Instead, what marks a fellow Christian as “ours” is anointing at baptism and at confirmation. The ritual embraces those of us who are not equipped for circumcision as well as all who are not Jews. This shift thus emphasizes the extension of grace through Jesus to all peoples. But what if the shift also stands as a reminder to me to rise to the challenge of being as nearly Christ as I can to all people, seeing each person through Jesus’ eyes and loving each one as “ours”?

For Dec. 25, 2014: Christmas Day (Christmas III)

The Reading                                                           Isaiah 52:7-10

Addressing ruined Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah shows us the sentinels of Zion singing the good news of the Lord returning to redeem his people—all his people, to the ends of the earth. To the ends of the earth let us also repeat the sounding joy of Christmas, and live into it.

The Response                                                         Psalm 98

Isaiah 52:7-10 celebrates the Lord’s return to Zion and the salvation of God’s people. Psalm 98 resounds in response: the Lord has done astounding things, and the Lord’s victory is so obvious to all the earth that the very rivers and hills cry out for joy.

The Epistle                                                             Hebrews 1:1-12

The letter to the Hebrews, written to the church in Jerusalem, addresses Paul’s fellow Jews. To explain exactly who and what Jesus is, Paul cites Old Testament scriptures the Jews would know well. These scriptures refer to Jesus, the Son of God and the very being of God, who will remain after heaven and earth are gone.

The Gospel                                                              John 1:1-14

The word “gospel” comes from Old English gōd spell ‘good news’. The first fourteen verses of the gospel of John indeed tell good news: beginning at verse 10, “he”—Jesus—is come to help us become children of light, of grace, of truth, of God.

 

Further thoughts

Jim Mathes, the Episcopal bishop of San Diego, reports in his blog that, though he has been a lifelong fan, he has chosen to stop watching football as a witness against the violence of our culture.[1] I think it can also be argued that football epitomizes our human insistence on sorting people tidily into categories that amount to “winners” and “losers”, “good guys” and “bad guys”, “Us” and “Them”. as either winners or losers, and we extend this even in circumstances that don’t seem much like competitions. How readily we disparage losers! How readily we perceive disrespect on the part of others and move to “get our own back”! That this is true of human nature in general is surely an important lesson of the Bible, from the murder of Abel onward. Furthermore, we easily fall into projecting onto God our own eagerness to see winners rewarded, losers punished, and disrespect prosecuted to the fullest extent of the Law.

The lections for Christmas Day suggest that what we project onto God may not represent God very accurately. Psalm 98 celebrates the Lord’s victory, but without identifying a loser, and the psalmist emphasizes that the Lord judges all peoples with equity—that is, with an eye toward the special circumstances of each. Isaiah proclaims the Lord’s return, but what the Lord brings in Isaiah 52:7-10 is not retribution but redemption and comfort. More to the point, Hebrews 1:3 emphasizes that the Son, Jesus, is “the exact imprint of God’s very being”, and, if what God the Son brings us, according to John 1:1-14, is life, light, grace, and truth, it follows that God’s own self is life, light, grace, and truth—and such a God may be not nearly as ready to categorize either my enemies or me as I am myself. Such a God takes on the frail flesh of a baby. Such a God hangs on the cross with arms open to all peoples, to show us that what it takes to break the cycle of retributive violence is, when offered violence in deed or even in word, to refuse to offer violence in response.

That, it seems, is how to live into the call to join Jesus as another-child-of-God of life, light, grace, and truth, it follows that I am called to do as he did in a dark world. How astonishing, and how much the point of Christmas!

 

[1] Mathes, Jim, “Bearing Witness to Our Culture of Violence,” Where SunDays Are Better than Others, Episcopal Diocese of San Diego Web site, 18 December 2014. http://www.edsd.org/where-sundays-are-better-than-others/bearing-witness-to-our-culture-of-violence-fourth-witness/#.VJmQoAAA. Accessed 23 December 2014.

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.

For Dec. 29, 2013: 1 Christmas, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Isaiah 61 was composed as God’s people returned from exile to find Jerusalem in ruins; life is hard. Even so, says the prophet, there is great good news: it is time to rejoice as one does at one’s wedding, for God’s vindication and salvation are on their way—and already here.

The Response            Psalm 147:13-21

The selection from Psalm 147 is a song of praise. It calls the people to worship and praise the Lord for making the front doors secure, protecting the weak, giving peace, providing rich harvests, controlling the natural order and the seasons, and announcing his word. Hallelujah!

The Epistle            Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

In the epistle, Paul writes to the church of Galatia—a part of Asia Minor populated by ethnic Celts—to explain the difference between life under the law and life in faith. Under the law we were like dependents with no legal standing. Then Jesus came to name us as immediate kin—and so to adopt us into God’s forever family.

The Gospel            John 1:1-18

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Luke gave us the close-up view of the birth of Christ. On the first Sunday of Christmas season, John’s gospel begins with a wider perspective: Jesus the Light of the World comes into the world to give us power to become children of God, if we will take it.

Ponderables

A lectionary is a sequence of readings from the Bible for weekly or daily use. The Revised Common Lectionary or RCL is a three-year cycle of scripture readings for use at Sunday church services; Year A, which began on the first Sunday of Advent at the beginning of December, follows the gospel of Matthew, Year B the gospel of Mark, and Year C the gospel of Luke, with the gospel of John read on festival days and on Sundays in Pentecost Year B after the gospel of Mark is finished.

The RCL is “revised” in that the original version, based on and inspired by the three-year Roman Catholic lectionary that was published in 1969, was altered in 1996 from the version issued in 1983 by the North American Consultation for Common Texts. It is “common” in that it is in use at least to some extent in many Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Unitarian Universalist, UCC, and other churches. One advantage of the RCL is that having all these churches on the same page, so to speak, makes ecumenical services much easier.

The Episcopal Church began transitioning from the lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer to the Revised Common Lectionary in 2007. We retain the BCP usage on some specific Sundays, however. One of those is the first Sunday after Christmas; where the RCL has a distinct set of readings for each liturgical year, Episcopal usage specifies the same set for all three years. The readings bear repeating: it is good to follow Isaiah’s exultant outstretched arm pointing to the Light on the horizon, to repeat with the children of Israel a short litany of the Lord’s mercies, to hear with the Galatian aliens the great good news of our adoption, and to wonder with John at the great mystery of the Word of God made flesh of our flesh. Amen, hallelujah!

For Dec. 25, 2013: Christmas Day (Christmas II)

The Reading            Isaiah 62:6-12

What astonishing news Isaiah gives us: Jerusalem restored to more than it ever was, and the fruit of their labors going to the people who have sweated for them, rather than to the oppressor. “You who remind the Lord” might be angels in heaven—but might not they also be us?

The Response            Psalm 97

Psalm 97 is one of a series of “enthronement psalms” that celebrate the Lord. It depicts the Lord as a God of mystery and power, to be feared and exalted, but also as a God before whom the righteous can rejoice.

The Epistle            Titus 3:4-7

In the first reading, Isaiah foretells the salvation of Jerusalem in terms of liberation from oppressors and abundance for those who have labored. As Titus tells it, however, God our Savior has done much more than that—not because we have done anything to earn it, but simply through God’s mercy.

The Gospel            Luke 2:1-20

The nativity narrative 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

Psalm 97 describes a God of awe, making the mountains melt like wax and keeping track of all righteousness and unrighteousness. This is the very same God, according to Isaiah, whose preference is to promote equity by actively soliciting feedback from God’s people, and, according to Luke, the God whose way to save us from ourselves—which, as God and the writer to Titus know, we need—is to be born as one of the least of us.

Isn’t that staggeringly amazing?

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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