Sunday, December 25
Sing with Joy
God, you spoke and your Word became flesh, breathing a new song of joy and praise into the world. Grant that we may bear the good news of your salvation, proclaiming your promise of peace to the ends of the earth. Amen.
O sing to God a new song,
for God has done marvelous things.
God's right hand and holy arm
have given God the victory.
God has made known the victory;
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 with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
All readings for this Sunday
Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12)
1. What is behind our Christmas giving, what hope for a joy that is hard to describe or explain?
2. What is your favorite Christmas carol, and what particular joy does it express?
3. What are you doing, as you wait for God's messenger?
4. Do you feel tired and relieved on Christmas morning, or energized and renewed?
5. What difference would it make if your church understood itself as "anointed with the oil of gladness"?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
At Christmas, we gaze at the manger scene, we sing songs and re-tell the ancient story of the birth of Jesus: we celebrate, filled with joy at that amazing gift of God so long ago. However, our psalm reading for this day, Psalm 98, calls us to sing "a new song" not only because of what God has done in the past but also because of what God is still doing today and will continue to do in the future. At the core of their religious observance, the people of Israel remembered God's faithfulness in their past, but also recognized the presence of God in their present, 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 the world all along.
We might be jarred by this notion of judgment entering our Christmas celebration, but 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." (This seasonal reference may not apply to churches in, say, Australia, where my grandchildren have 90-degree Christmas weather, but changing our lives in the new year certainly does.) Simply put, Tanner says, "The psalm calls on us to party for the equality of all" (New Proclamation Year B 2012).
That approach brings our Christmas celebration into the same rhythm, and singing the same melody, with the same harmonies, as God's song of justice and healing and peace, not just for some, but for all of this world that God loves so well. And 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 of God (think "Incarnation"), and to 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, not just our congregation, not just the wider church, not just folks who believe as we do, but 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." Many people seem particularly glum this holiday season; is there any better antidote to glumness than singing Christmas carols in a group, and together, taking the long view of things, with God at work in every age, no matter the circumstances?
The music of joy
Christmas seems to be a time when we linger on tender memories of 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, indeed, 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 almost verges on "getting" this, each Christmas, that some common ground is almost found, or is found, fleetingly: our common hunger for joy, and generous sharing, and peace. Think of the story of the Christmas Truce during World War I, when German and British troops on the Western Front were said to have stopped shooting after one side began singing Christmas carols, thus illustrating the power of music. They came out to meet one another, sang together, shook hands and even exchanged gifts, but they were forced to resume killing one another the next day http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/christmas-truce-of-1914.
More personally, back home, we may 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 wandered too far from "the true meaning of Christmas," that we have forgotten the deeper symbolism of "light" and "joy"?
A haunting beauty and lyrical joy
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 that singing of Christmas carols. Our musical memory lasts through the years, from our childhood into our old age; think of elders who are affected by dementia but who can remember the words of familiar old hymns. The melodies are 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, in our own time, longing, hoping that the world will be made whole again, healed of all that we humans have done to harm it and one another.
What is the good news we are waiting to hear, or waiting to see fulfilled, on this Christmas Day 2016? 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. So often we hear folks say that they dread Christmas because of all the "work" it entails, rather than being energized and renewed by such good news. How is the good news being drowned out by commercials, social media, the pressures of shopping and sales and bargains?
What about the suffering of the world?
Sometimes we see and hear only the worst of what is around us, neglecting the simplest joys, and thinking that our times are so much worse than those faced by people in the past. Or we may have reached the point of assuming that it's 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 participate at all. Can we even begin to make everything right? And yet, 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 believe that we are all on our own?
There is no denying that we cannot forget the suffering of God's children this Christmas season, in Aleppo, or the Sudan, or even in neighborhoods just up the street from our own. This may be our biggest challenge: how do we sing, and feel, joy when children are being pulled from the rubble in Aleppo, stunned and covered in blood? We become instruments of God's compassion and justice, and sing with our whole hearts, as we strive to put ourselves in God's service, to participate in what God is doing.
I think about the angels singing that night, even though Rome was still Rome, with its boot heel on the throat of the Jewish people. Those angels sang because they brought tidings of hope, of joy, great joy. That is where I turn for help in dealing with the news, and I hope that in some small way, I might become "tidings of great joy" as well, and a word of hope, to those I meet each day and to those I might reach in faraway places through the "angels" whose work we can all strengthen and support.
Celebration among the ruins
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 hearbreaking loss, every contentious public issue, 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?
How does Christmas morning do more than remind us of what God has done but also 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?
Expressing the inexpressible
This week's reading from John's Gospel (1:1-14) 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--from our readings--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, the shepherds who came to give homage (how many of us have ever lived as shepherds?).
Perhaps this paradox explains why 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, where we feel the music we sing. 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. 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?
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
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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."
Vanessa Redgrave, 20th 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."
Hamilton Wright Mabie, 19th century
"Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love."
Philip Yancey, 21st century
"Yet as I read the birth stories about Jesus I cannot help but conclude that though the world may be tilted toward the rich and powerful, God is tilted toward the underdog."
Charles Dickens, The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain, 19th century
"Christmas is a time in which, of all times in the year, the memory of every remediable sorrow, wrong, and trouble in the world around us, should be active with us, not less than our own experiences, for all good."
Bess Streeter Aldrich, Song of Years, 20th century
"Christmas Eve was a night of song that wrapped itself about you like a shawl. But it warmed more than your body. It warmed your heart... filled it, too, with a melody that would last forever. Even though you grew up and found you could never quite bring back the magic feeling of this night, the melody would stay in your heart always--a song for all the years."
Norman Vincent Peale, 20th century
"I truly believe that if we keep telling the Christmas story, singing the Christmas songs, and living the Christmas spirit, we can bring joy and happiness and peace to this world."
Attributed to a 7-year-old named Bobby
"Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen."
Alexander Smith, 19th century
"Christmas is the day that holds all time together."
Dale Evans Rogers, 20th century
"Christmas, my child, is love in action. Every time we love, every time we give, it's Christmas."
W. J. Cameron, 20th century
"Christmas is the gentlest, loveliest festival of the revolving year--and yet, for all that, when it speaks, its voice has strong authority."
John Greenleaf Whittier, 19th century
"Somehow, not only for Christmas but all the long year through, The joy that you give to others Is the joy that comes back to you. And the more you spend in blessing The poor and lonely and sad, The more of your heart's possessing Returns to you glad."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 19th century
"I heard the bells on Christmas Day; their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the word repeat of peace on earth, good-will to [all]!"
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."
Andy Rooney, 21st century
"One of the most glorious messes in the world is the mess created in the living room on Christmas day. Don't clean it up too quickly."
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