Sermon Seeds: Christmas Eve/Christmas
Christmas Eve/Christmas Year C
Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
Luke 2:[1-7], 8-20
Hebrews 1:1-4, 5-12
Worship resources for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Year C are at Worship Ways
Psalm 98 and John 1:1-14
Additional reflection on Isaiah 9:2-7 and Psalm 96
Additional reflection on Psalm 98 by Karen Georgia Thompson
by Kathryn Matthews
At Christmas, we look at the manger scene, we sing songs about what happened long ago, we re-tell – again and again – the ancient story of the birth of Jesus. We celebrate at Christmas, filled with joy at what God has done.
Our psalm reading for this day, Psalm 98, calls us to sing “a new song” because of what God did in the past but also because of what God is still doing today and will continue to do in the future.
Remembering God’s faithfulness
At the core of their religious observance, the people of Israel remembered God’s faithfulness in their history, but also recognized the presence of God in their midst at that moment, judging the people, judging the world God had created: in a sense, then, continuing to create and re-shape, to re-create it all along.
We might be caught off guard by this notion of judgment entering our Christmas celebration, but in her commentary on this text, Beth Tanner reminds us that the warmth of the Christmas season “gives way to the long, cold winter,” a good time to “change how we live so that others can live.” Simply put, she says, “The psalm calls on us to party for the equality of all” (New Proclamation Year B 2012).
Where Jesus learned to talk that way
That vision certainly brings our celebration this Christmas morning into coherence with our longing for God’s justice and healing and peace, not just for some of us but for all of the world that God loves so well. That surprising note of judgment reminds us, too, of Mary’s beautiful song, the Magnificat, when the high will be brought low, and the hungry filled. No wonder Mary’s son would talk the same way, one day.
On this Christmas Day, then, we look back, but we strive to open our eyes, too, to the presence and the workings of God’s promises, the unfolding of God’s will just as much for all of us and the world today as for one young woman, full of grace, long ago. The psalm calls us and all the world – our congregations, the wider church, folks who believe as we do and all the world, all creation – to sing this new song.
As nature breaks forth in praise and a melody of its own, the singing of birds and brooks, the music of the spheres, the hum that lies beneath all life, our voices raised in Christmas carols are joined with the rest of God’s good and beautiful creation, opening our hearts to the One who is Gift to us all, the One John speaks of in the opening to his Gospel as “the Word,” “the life,” and “the light.”
How can we contain our joy?
Christmas seems to be a time when we linger on tender memories of joy – a joy that had no material reason but was deeply spiritual and profoundly connected to all that surrounded us at the time. There have been times in our lives, hopefully, when it was impossible to contain our joy, when, as the old song goes, we couldn’t “keep from singing,” not unlike the psalmist or the evangelist, John, as he begins the story of Jesus. The first verses of John’s Gospel, after all, are often heard as a kind of hymn rather than simple story-telling.
Music, like other arts, expresses our feelings better than spoken or written words. It seems that the world verges on “getting” this, each Christmas: even in a year fillled with divisive rhetoric, scaremongering and revenge-seeking, we continue to hope, perhaps in desperation, that some common ground might be found, even fleetingly: our common hunger for joy, and generous sharing, and peace.
We may also dare to hope for reconciliation in our personal relationships and families, just as we dare to dream of peace among the nations. We suspect that this is the deepest longing of the human heart, and in the midst of Christmas celebrations, underneath and through them, that’s the longing we’re trying to express with each twinkling light (a star in the sky?), each colorful ornament, every carol sung. Do you agree with this claim, or do you think we have finally wandered too far from “the true meaning of Christmas”?
Singing with our ancestors long ago
We celebrate Christmas in many ways, among them gathering with family and friends, exchanging gifts, holding pageants, and sending cards. Perhaps the most moving and memorable way we celebrate Christmas, however, is singing Christmas carols. Our musical memory lasts through the years, from our childhood into our old age, the melodies familiar and comforting, the words hauntingly beautiful and instructive at the same time.
The readings for this morning are like songs, too, and their lyrical celebration of God at work in the world, saving, vindicating, calling, and comforting, links us to our ancestors in faith who shared our common hope and longing. We sing along with them today.
Waiting, still, for good news
What is the good news we wait to hear, or wait to see fulfilled, on one more Christmas morning? Perhaps we’re waiting for a messenger who will tell us that the tide has turned, that the day of vindication and hope has arrived, that God is still with us. Or, perhaps we have secretly, privately, given up hope, in spite of our best efforts at decorating, cooking, visiting, and even gift-giving; we’re just going through the motions.
Worse, we may reached the point of assuming that it is all up to us to bring the peace our hearts long for, all up to “little old us” and our best efforts, with God not bothering to intervene at all. Do you think we can even begin to make everything right? After all, isn’t Christmas about God intervening in human history? Isn’t Christmas about God telling us not to give up hope after all, telling us not to despair that we are all on our own?
Good news even in the midst of desolation
In some ways, we might experience ourselves, or at least our culture, our nation, the world, as “a city in ruins,” like Jerusalem so long ago. How does this image strike you? And yet, God is still speaking good news to us, today, in the “ruins of Jerusalem,” in every broken dream, every heart-breaking loss, every contentious public debate, every insurmountable obstacle….God is, still, bringing good news.
What are the broken things, the malfunctioning systems, the things that need to be made right today? How does Christmas morning do more than remind us of what God has done but instead proclaims that God is active in the world today, in this setting of history? What is the new thing that God is doing in the life of your congregation, in your own life, in the life of the United Church of Christ? In this day, how is God revealing God’s own self in the life of the community?
Longing for a Word
The reading from John’s Gospel is more familiar than many, but its profound meaning often goes over our heads. On this Christmas morning, what is the Word that we long to hear, that we long to feel anew in our lives? The baby is small and vulnerable and sweet, yet the God revealed in this human flesh is clearly, our readings tell us, a mighty God, above our imaginings or description.
We can hardly begin to relate to such a Presence and such a Reality. And yet we can relate to a baby, a mother, and, strangely enough, to the shepherds who came to give homage.
Expressing the inexpressible
Perhaps this paradox explains why the practice of singing the carols begins to express the inexpressible: we cannot put into words the incredible mystery of God-made-flesh, and yet we have known it in our bones. We have felt God with us even when we could never explain how that could be. Christmas is our communal recognition, our shared celebration, that God is with us still, still speaking, still acting in our lives and in the life of the world that God loves so well.
God is still with us, and we celebrate, and we sing our songs this Christmas morning. But how will we continue to sing these songs, in the days ahead? How is this morning not only unlike all other mornings, but indeed like every other morning of our lives?
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
For further reflection:
Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, 20th century
“For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.”
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, 21st century
“Talking is the voice of human, singing is the voice of soul.”
Hamilton Wright Mabie, 20th century
“Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.”
Zora Neale Hurston, 20th century
“Love, I find, is like singing.”
Anne Lamott, 21st century
“Then the singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart. There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food.”
“Those who wish to sing always find a song.”
Nadia Bolz-Weber, 21st century
“God did not enter the world of our nostalgic, silent-night, snow-blanketed, peace-on-earth, suspended reality of Christmas. God slipped into the vulnerability of skin and entered our violent and disturbing world.”
Christina G. Rossetti, 19th century
“Love came down at Christmas; love all lovely, love divine; love was born at Christmas, stars and angels gave the sign.”
Reflection on Psalm 98:
by Karen Georgia Thompson
One of the many gifts of Christmas is the number of carols that begin to fill the airwaves weeks before Christmas Day. Secular and sacred, they bring to mind the stories that capture what Christmas is for us in the church, but also bring tales of snow, sledding, drinking hot chocolate and finding presents under the Christmas tree.
Sometimes it seems that the songs about sledding and snow, dreams of Santa and gifts under the tree far outnumber the songs that tell of the birth of Jesus in the manger. The news of the angels singing and of the shepherds making their way in haste is not as prominent on the airwaves these days.
Not a Christmas story
Psalm 98 is no Christmas story. Diane Bergant notes that Psalm 98 “belongs to the category of enthronement psalms, praising God as king over all (v.6). It opens with a summons to sing a new song to God (cf. Psalm 96). The reason for this new song is the marvelous things God has done. The psalmist follows this summons with an enumeration of some of the acts of God (vv.1b-3)” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year B).
Where is the story of Christmas on this Christmas morning as we read this enthronement psalm which praises God as king over all? This psalm praises God as the judge of the world in the midst of celebrating the birth of the Christ child with all the joy, hope and expectation for peace in the world and good will among all people.
God of love and faithfulness
“O sing to God a new song, for God has done marvelous things” (Psalm 98:1). There is a bold invitation to join the psalmist in celebrating God because of all God has done. God as celebrated here is God made known to the people as one who is victorious and acts on behalf of the people. God is God of love and faithfulness, ever present in the lives of the people.
There is much for the psalmist to sing about as God is remembered and acknowledged in the lives of the community. This tale of God victorious gives pause at first glance, but the psalmist points us in a direction that is joyful for this Christmas season and always.
The distinction between praise and thanksgiving
The psalms provide a distinction between praise and thanksgiving. Our varying traditions as Christians bring us different expressions of praise and certainly of what it means to “sing with joy.” S. E. Gillingham points to the unique nature of the psalms of thanksgiving: “It is possible to see the thanksgiving as another form of the hymn, in that it praises God for the particular act of restoration, rather than being more general in its orientation” (The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible).
The inclination in our worship at Christmas might be one of thanksgiving and gratitude for the gift of God given in Jesus. There is much room for gratitude but our gratitude should include praise – a new song expressing the joy of receiving the gift that is inherent in the meaning of the Christmas story.
Thanksgiving and praise
Praise – “the act of expressing approval or admiration; laudation; commendation” is not static but a dynamic expression that is exuberant at best. Praise is not a lukewarm expression. The psalmist issues a second invitation to all: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises” (Psalm 98:4).
Joyful noise, joyful song and songs of praise are the order for this new day. The realization of God’s goodness and faithfulness are the source of inspiration for this time of celebration.
God’s marvelous deeds
Beth Tanner captures this exuberant expression as she expounds on the celebration of God as “King, Creator, and Judge of All.” She writes: “We are called to sing a new song, for it is a new day with God and God has done marvelous things. But we are not alone in our song; we are to join with all the earth. Using every instrument we have, we are to make a great deal of noise! Our song should reach the heavens. On this day that we celebrate the coming of God to live among us and our weekly Sabbath worship, praise should be unleashed as a celebration where little kids twirl and old gentlemen laugh with tears of grateful thanks. In the psalms its gets noisier still as the creation joins in its grateful song. Everything and everyone, just for a moment, shares a time of joy” (New Proclamation Year B 2011-2012).
Song of angels
The corpus of Christmas songs brings to mind this exuberance. Songs of the angels singing provide visions of praise and adoration that are reflected in our own singing as we sing “Angels We Have Heard on High” with its resounding refrain of Glo-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-ri-a in Ex-cel-sis De-o! This well-known hymn also includes all involved in praise as the mountains echo their reply to the angels singing.
Angels we have on heard high
Sweetly singing ore the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
To that we could add “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” “Joy to the World” and other Christmas staples that paint the picture of angels, trees, mountains, shepherds praising God and singing of God’s grace and mercy. These were written many years ago. They are classics in their own right. We revisit them each Christmas season and know them so well that we no longer notice the praise that emanates from these songs. Is there room for singing a new song among us?
Singing a new song
The new song is more than just providing new lyrics and a new tune. Brian K. Peterson notes that the call to rejoice goes out to the people in the Temple, those who have experienced God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. They are to sing a new song to replace the old songs of lament: “In the final verse the reason for such praise is given: what God has done for Israel, God will do for all the world, bringing righteousness and equity. This verse turns attention away from what God has done in the past to what God is doing now and will do in the future to set right what is wrong. In the church’s celebration of Christmas, it would be easy to think only in terms of what happened so long ago, but our joy is also over what God is doing now, and what God will still do to heal our lives and the world” (New Proclamation Year B 2008-2009).
A new song awaits us this Christmas Day! We sing with joy with all of creation. This awareness of all things singing with joy is a reminder that we need to care for all of creation. We sing in community, a reminder that we are one people created in the image of the Divine. We are reminded in these moments that we are to care for each other. There is much to sing about. There is much to celebrate.
New songs of praise
A “new” song implies that there was an “old” song. James Limburg comments on the invitation for the people to sing a new song: “Here is a call to break out of traditional ruts and bring some fresh music into the worship service!…There must have been those who wanted only the ‘old songs’ (the good old hymns that everybody knows) and those who wanted to make use of contemporary ones. This psalm…is on the side of those who want to try something new” (Psalms, Westminster Bible Companion).
What is there for us to sing about as we consider the presence of God with us and among us on this Christmas Day? What are the new songs of praise for us to sing? Will we make room to sing with joy this Christmas?
The Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson serves as the UCC’s Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.
Additional questions for reflection on Isaiah 9:2-7 and Psalm 96:
by Kathryn Matthews
At so many points in human history, people have felt that they were walking in darkness, carrying heavy burdens, and feeling the rod of an oppressor. Even in this most joyous of seasons, on this holy night, many if not most of the folks in our pews are bearing heavy burdens of one kind or another.
Many may feel pressed down, lost, in the dark, despite the bright lights in stores and displays: the celebrations only seem to make the heartache heavier for those who are grieving, those who are strapped with debt, those who are struggling with illness, family tensions, and worries about the world around us.
We may think that living in a democracy means we don’t have to worry about things like ancient empires taking over our lives, and yet don’t we have empires of one kind or another that “rule” over us in one way or another: materialism (how evident in the Christmas season, alas), militarism, consumerism, racism, nationalism, to name only a few?
Our deepest longings
Our reading from the ninth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah presents a portrait of a people lost, afraid, depressed and demoralized, a people on whom a light then shines, and whose spirits are lifted up. The promise of peace is dramatically depicted in the burning of the boots of warriors and the bloody garments of those who have suffered violence.
What is the deepest longing of the people of your church? What is the deepest hunger in the people of your community, in your setting of the church? Where, in that longing and hunger, is there a call for your community of faith?
In what ways can we be people of peace in this world, embodying the promise of peace that we hear on this night, year after year? We still have a long way to go in a most divisive election process, already marred by unusual level of vitriol. How might the message of this text, and the story of the Nativity in Luke, help to heal our divisions and lead us onto the paths of restoration and peace?
A word of true hope
Psalm 96 reminds us that “the gods of the peoples are idols” and again, we might ask, what are the gods we have shaped in our own culture? Do we ever think of ourselves as guilty of the sin of idolatry? To what do we truly give our hearts?
In this Christmas season, what is the word of true hope, what is the truest promise that we have received? What is the true gift of this season, and how do we experience that gift as enduring beyond a holiday season or few weeks of celebration?
Do not fear
The Bible often says, “Do not be afraid.” Fear and glory: God is still speaking to us today, in the midst of our fears and uncertainty, and saying, as the angel did: “Do not be afraid.” What are your greatest fears? How do you experience the comfort of God when you are afraid? What is the glory of God shining around you, even in the midst of your everyday work, like the shepherds?
How do you hear the voice of God reassuring you and bringing you good news? Does your community of faith hear this good news afresh in this Christmas season, and give glory to God themselves? How does our anticipation of Christmas relate to our anticipation of the love and promise embodied by the child, Jesus?
For further reflection:
Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord, 21st century
“I understood that I was being shown the future: shards of what would come to be. Often, I cried out for the pain of it. But other times, I was comforted, because I saw, for an instant, the pattern of the whole.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, 20th century
“The chief purpose of life, for any of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks.”
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, 21st century
“What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent with the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.”
Vanessa Redgrave, 21st century
“Sometimes Christmas is not a still point. Snow melts and swirls away and the day doesn’t offer up the peace that we imagined. But in the darkness seeds awake and green shoots unfurl towards the light. Fate might shake us, but our roots run deep. And we have love to water them. And so we bloom where we are planted. Turning our faces to the sun.”
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.
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.
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.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
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.
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.
O sing to God
a new song;
sing to God,
all the earth.
Sing to God,
bless God’s name;
tell of God’s salvation
from day to day.
Declare God’s glory
among the nations,
God’s marvelous works
among all the peoples.
For great is God,
and greatly to be praised;
God is to be revered
above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples
but God made the heavens.
Honor and majesty
are before God;
strength and beauty
are in God’s sanctuary.
Ascribe to God,
O families of the peoples,
ascribe to God
glory and strength.
Ascribe to God the glory
due God’s name;
bring an offering,
and come into God’s courts.
Worship God in holy splendor;
tremble before God,
all the earth.
Say among the nations,
“God is ruler!
The world is firmly established;
it shall never be moved.
“God will judge the peoples;
God will judge the peoples
Let the heavens be glad,
and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar,
and all that fills it;
let the field exult,
and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest
sing for joy before God;
for God is coming,
for God is coming
to judge the earth.
God will judge the world
and the peoples
with God’s truth.
For 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.
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 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.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 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: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
(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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.)
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,
and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it renowned throughout the earth.
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;
but those who garner it shall eat it
and praise the Lord,
and those who gather it shall drink it
in my holy courts.
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.
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.”
They shall be called, “The Holy People,
The Redeemed of the Lord”;
and you shall be called, “Sought Out,
A City Not Forsaken.”
God is ruler!
Let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness
are all around God;
righteousness and justice
are the foundation
of God’s throne.
Fire goes before God,
and consumes God’s adversaries
on every side.
God’s lightnings light up
the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax
before the God of all the earth.
The heavens proclaim God’s righteousness;
and all the peoples behold God’s glory.
All worshipers of images
are put to shame,
those who make their boast
in worthless idols;
all gods bow down
Zion hears and is glad,
and the towns of Judah rejoice,
because of your judgments,
For you, O God,
are most high
over all the earth;
you are exalted
far above all gods.
God loves those
who hate evil;
God guards the lives
of God’s faithful;
God rescues them
from the hand of the wicked.
Light dawns for the righteous,
and joy for the upright in heart.
Rejoice in God,
O you righteous,
and give thanks
to God’s holy name!
But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, 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. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20
[In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 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.]
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 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: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
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.”
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.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
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.
O sing to God
a new song,
for God has done
God’s strong hand
and holy arm
have gained the victory.
God has made known
and has revealed God’s vindication
in the sight of the nations.
God has remembered having steadfast love
and faithfulness to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth
have seen the victory of our God.
Make a joyful noise to God,
all the earth;
break forth into joyous song
and sing praises.
Sing praises to God
with the lyre,
with the lyre
and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound
of the horn
make a joyful noise
before the Ruler, the Sovereign.
Let the sea roar,
and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of God,
for God is coming
to judge the earth.
God will judge the world
and the peoples with equity.
Hebrews 1:1-4, 5-12
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 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. 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, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son;
today I have begotten you”?
“I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son”?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.”
Of the angels he says,
“He makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire.”
But of the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever,
and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”
“In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like clothing;
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.”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
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.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”
Notes on Advent and Christmas
There are different approaches to the colors associated with Advent; both have historical precedent.
Violet–once a very expensive color to produce (remember Lydia in Acts?)–was associated with royalty, and so with some traditions of Christ the King. It was also adopted in many churches for use in Lent, and so acquired penitential associations. The Rose color used on Advent 3 — Gaudete (Joy) Sunday, when readings traditionally employed imagery of rejoicing, offered a break from the penitential themes by pointing to the joy, or the dawn, drawing close at Christmas. Some advent wreaths include three Purple and one Rose candle. (Remember that “Gaudete” comes into English as “Gaudy,” and choose a deep, rather than a pale, shade of Rose or Pink!)
Another Advent tradition employs deep Blue, suggesting the long nights in the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year. We wait in expectation and hope in these long nights, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Candle lighting rituals may take on a particular poignancy in such a context. In this setting, using the Rose candle on the third Sunday of Advent–Gaudete (Joy)–points to the dawn that is coming.
White, or its variant, Gold, first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are festivals related to the incarnation of Jesus Christ.