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Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary
Preaching Year A
By Paul Scott Wilson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Christmas Eve/Day, Third Proper
The Lessons in Précis
At last the awaited moment when eternity has entered, temporal time is upon us, and for a moment, because of God's gift, all is right with the world.
Isaiah 9:2-7. "The people walking in darkness" (v. 2) with warrior boots and bloody garments describes earthly life which, out of its great need, is given the Prince of Peace.
Psalm 96. In response to Isaiah's announcement, the assembly sings an ancient hymn of joy for the One who comes to judge with righteousness.
Titus 2:11-14. The grace of God trains us to wait in hope through renunciation of all that keeps us from God.
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20). Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem where she gives birth to Jesus and angels reveal to the shepherds his true identity.
Into the darkness God brings a light of great joy. God addresses our inability to live in accord with what is good, whole, and peaceful in all spheres of human life—political, physical, and spiritual. God both confronts us with the veil that keeps us from understanding how to function and sends a savior who breaks our bonds, transcends the grip of human limitation, and frees us.
A Key Theological Question
One way to address Christmas is to consider the significance of the Christmas light. Isaiah spoke of a great light come into darkness. The glory of the Lord shines around the angels in Luke. In Matthew, a star guides the Magi. In the northern hemisphere Advent spreads across the darkest days of the year. In the past, without artificial light, people organized their lives around diminishing daylight. Night closed down all activities that demanded light. People either slept or came to "know the dark," as Wendell Berry puts it. The stars illustrated their favorite stories; the darkness teemed with spirits, inviting introspection. The late poet Audre Lorde observed: "The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes we hope to bring about through those lives." What is the quality of Christmas light?
The familiarity of these readings makes Christmas light seem like the friendly twinkle of starlight. In fact, the season's light explodes darkness the way a bolt of lightning explodes the night. Christmas light is blinding, sometimes driving people back into a familiar darkness. The eyes need time to adjust.
Indeed, Isaiah's proclamation may not seem like "good news" to people used to walking in darkness. Once in the wilderness, the Israelites began to long for the "the pots cooking meat [of Egypt]," where at least they had enough to eat (Exod 16:3). They judged hunger worse than slavery, and they preferred their bellies filled, even if their backs ached. Finding themselves in that bright light of freedom, their eyes needed time to adjust. More important, their hearts needed time to adjust.
The shepherds' reaction to the bright light of Christmas, then, tells the truth of Christmas light: "They were terrified" (Luke 2:9).
The angel's comfort comes as a command: "Don't be afraid" (v. 10). These words become an ongoing refrain throughout Jesus' ministry. Again and again, he uses them to comfort followers terrified by the bright light of Christmas: "Fear not!" "Don't be afraid!" The only thing Jesus says more frequently are the words, "Follow me." This is not a coincidence. The balance has now shifted, the days are getting longer, the light will prevail. Then and now, Jesus' voice calls us out of darkness into his light.
Christmas light exposes power. Is this what dazzles us about Christmas light? You can read status in someone's posture, the cut of their clothes, the way they meet your eye, or don't—or can't. As Luke tells it, Jesus' birth comes in the middle of a census, so that "everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists" (2:1). An occupying army ordered the census, and the Romans were an unwelcome presence in a land promised to God's chosen people. Summoned to assemble with their extended families and children for the census, the Jews were vulnerable, gathered like sheep ready for the slaughter. The census reasserted Roman power. In Roman eyes, every male, whether child or adult, was a potential soldier in an army of resistance. The story of the Messiah's birth reflected the contemporary political tension, a reality that played out in the Messiah's death.
Christmas light also exposes particulars: the messiness of a room, dust on surfaces, dirt on windows, things that could be hidden in darkness. Christmas light reveals the scandal of the incarnation, God taking on human flesh. This "savior," the one who is supposed to redeem Israel of the house and lineage of David, does not arrive in Davidic splendor. He is born rather in a stable, probably more of a barnyard than the sanitized crèches we pull out every Christmas. The birthplace of the Christ reeked of ordinary life, and his visitors probably had to cover their noses. Salvation from a pigsty! No wonder everyone was asking Jesus: "Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?" (Luke 7:19). Christmas light exposes particulars —and the incarnation itself is a scandal of particularity.
In addition, Christmas light exposes people. Joseph's faithfulness shines forth, for he stayed with a fiancée who was already pregnant. Mary steps into the light as someone who trusted in an angel's promise. Despite their fears, the shepherds courageously come to worship a Messiah who shows up in the most unlikely of places and under the most inauspicious circumstances.
Finally, Christmas light exposes who God really is. Psalm 96 counts as one of the "royal psalms," fueling expectations of a king who would come in regal robes with full military accompaniment in order to establish justice among the peoples and peace between the nations.
What Christmas brings is a baby, not a king; who shows up in a manger, not a palace; who's wearing rags, not royal robes. Christmas light exposes a God who wants the full range of human experience from cradle to grave, not only the grown-up version. God takes on the full palette of human emotions, including the primary emotional colors of anger, fear, and despair. God meets us face-to-face and matches us experience-for-experience. The psalmist marvels that God comes to "judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth" (Ps 96:13, NRSV). Divine truth is present here on Earth; God knows the human condition.
Thanks be to God!
A Pastoral Need
On Christmas, the preacher has to consider both the astonishing good news of this time and the state of the assembly. With all of the clutter of this season people may not be aware that the hope for which we long comes from outside of us. The sanctuary may be full of excited and impatient children, parents juggling competing needs, relatives who do or do not like to be together, grandparents with eyes only for their grandchildren or who cannot hear what the preacher says, street people in need of shelter, folks without family, those in mourning, and some who have partied in excess. To preach well in this situation is to gather all of those disparate attentions into the manger with the child so that light of the savior shines on everyone. This baby makes everyone part of one family.
The birth of Jesus—the light of the world, Immanu-el, God-with-us—brings us together for good reason. With all of our differences and difficulties, we are in great need of hearing that none of us is alone in this universe and that God desires us to know the wonders of the incarnation. Most of the time we struggle with problems and answers that make plain the endless further difficulties we don't want to look at. Arriving even at a point where we can acknowledge together the needs in our midst, we are confronted with our helplessness in truly solving them.
So it is that at Christmas we receive joy, practice it, sing and breathe together. People speak of the "Christmas spirit" because it is a palpable experience: one time during the year when we expect blessings and we trust that love is real and eternal and that somehow we do all belong. It is an in-gathering in the best sense, and the sermon needs not only to say as much but also to embody it.
About the birth, two ethical matters stand out. First, as the stories tell us, the shepherds go to see the Christ promised by the angels, but instead of a venue befitting a savior, they find a baby born to a couple too poor and unconnected to have afforded a proper room. Christians have mined this story for centuries for the meaning in Mary's youth, Joseph's lineage in the house of David, their long journey to be counted in the census, their poverty and the treacherous situation of a pregnant, unwed teenager. Of all these matters, the humble quality of their experience is of overriding significance.
First, the inelegant circumstances of Jesus' birth find much in common with those who sought him out: shepherds whose work is among the lowliest and loneliest. The story directly aims the location of the holy in that which is not supposed to be anything special: a baby in a hay trough is the Alpha and Omega, the lamb who sits on the throne at the end of time. The homeless and hungry, powerless and voiceless among us are of utmost concern to the Most High God. To them is born this vision.
Second, however small the suggestions of their presence, this story makes clear that animals were present at the miracle as well. The child is laid in the bin that holds food for livestock and angels come to shepherds tending flocks. The birth is surrounded by all of creation—not only human beings but also the creatures who live and breathe beside us and by whose flesh and milk, wool and skins, we are given life. Christ Jesus is born in the place where God's creatures all rest and eat. Christmas, in other words, may be one of the best times for the sermon to speak of God's commitment to the salvation of all earth's inhabitants.
If the incarnation—God become human—is about anything, it establishes the deep connections between all things. Angels speak to earthlings, shepherds meet with a descendant of King David and kneel before a woman who has just given birth, animals give up their meal place, and heaven and earth belong together. This is a bold cry against the notion that heaven and earth shall never meet, that the body has no relation to the soul, that creation itself is irrelevant to God. It is no use to try putting thoughts into the heads of sheep, but there is on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day a strong impulse toward understanding that the incarnation pulls not only heaven and earth but also all of earth together in adoration of the Savior.
The angel's words—"Don't be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people" (Luke 2:10)—seem to be speaking of the Israelite people. But in the ensuing decades after Jesus' death and resurrection, our ancestors understood that the meaning of God-with-us includes the Gentiles as well as the Israelites. The light that shined in the darkness shines now with the same intensity—enlarged, expansive, encompassing—revealing that the good news has come for all of God's beloved creatures. This is the start of God's new creation.CHAPTER 2
First Sunday After Christmas Day
The Lessons in Précis
Finally having arrived in the Christmas season itself, and only a few days after singing "Joy to the World," we encounter the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, with Joseph and his little family fleeing for their lives.
Isaiah 63:7-9. God is present with the people of Israel and calls, protects, and saves them.
Psalm 148. All creation—human, animal, vegetable, and earth itself—sings praise to the Lord whose "majesty is over earth and heaven" (v. 13).
Hebrews 2:10-18. The "children" share flesh and blood with each other and also with Jesus Christ who became human, overcame death and continues to help those in need.
Matthew 2:13-23. An angel in a dream warns Joseph and Mary to flee from the Massacre of the Innocents, and another dream warns them, on their return from Egypt, to go to Nazareth.
In the midst of the pain and injustice of this world, God calls, protects, and saves. The Nativity of Our Lord does not eliminate the tyranny and bloodshed of those who deal falsely for the sake of their own power. Lies and testing have not come to their end. But the crucified and risen Christ fulfilled the prophets' announcements that God uplifts those in need.
A Key Theological Question
This first Sunday after Christmas is a ripe time for giving praise. Though suffering and evil are not yet eliminated, in Jesus Christ their end is in sight. However, praise in the midst of trouble can be a difficult issue.
For medieval monasteries, the Great Silence began as the final office of the day ended. No one spoke, as the monks filed out of the chancel, up the night stairs, and into their dormitories. With the first office of the next day, they returned to the chancel, breaking the night's silence with a versicle from Psalm 51:15: "Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise." They believed that if God opened their lips each morning, praise would pour forth. The last word spoken each night was "Amen"; the first words of the morning were words of praise.
A lot of things open my lips each morning: a call for coffee, loud worries about the weather, and always an awareness of "The List"—things left undone from the day before and tasks for the new day. I need to rediscover a monastic rhythm of silence and praise. These Christmas readings return us to our truest nature. We humans are hard-wired for praise.
The prophet Isaiah bursts out with stories of "the Lord's faithful acts" (63:7). The psalmist gives glory for a creation that includes "sea monsters" and "ocean depths," "fire and hail, snow and smoke," "mountains," and "every single hill" (148:7-9). The detail dazzles and delights: it's full-bodied, full-throated, full-speed-ahead praise. No created thing remains silent.
Yet in the midst of a symphony of praise, the readings register an undercurrent of danger. Christmas light casts shadows, and they are worth noticing. Even as he cheers, Isaiah hints at trouble between God and God's people. In the prophet's audience were people who felt the pain of God's absence; they wondered if God still cared about them. Isaiah's boast sounds so bold—"Truly they are my people ..." (63:8). But only someone full of doubt would put the matter like that. Hebrews proclaims God's faithfulness, but the author protests too much. Both texts are written to people who fear God has forgotten them.
Matthew's Gospel delivers the starkest challenge to praise. Immediately after Jesus' birth, Joseph receives an angel's command to return to Egypt. This is almost as bad as being told his fiancée is pregnant. The Hebrew people languished in bondage in Egypt; the country represented "the house of slavery" (Deut 5:6). Even if Hosea prophesied of a Messiah who would rise up "out of Egypt" (11:1), the place was no vacation destination for Jews. Egypt neither welcomed nor liked them. The angel's command meant exile in a strange and inhospitable country.
But exile also spared the young family from Herod's cruelty. In an effort to eradicate political resistance, he ordered all firstborn male infants under two years to be executed. Matthew makes sure we remember the carnage, recalling Jeremiah's prophesy about "Rachel weeping for her children" (Matt 2:18).
The liturgical calendar will not let us forget. Christians celebrate the birth of the Christ in a week awash in blood. December 28 commemorates the slaughter of the "Holy Innocents," as they came to be known. Immediately after the birth of Jesus, December 26 marks the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. December 29 remembers Thomas Becket, the twelfth century archbishop of Canterbury who spoke truth to power and was slain by the king's men. The readings and the liturgical calendar hold together both praise and lament. How can this be "good news?"
So close after Christmas, the commemorations foreshadow crucifixion. They caution against domesticating Christmas and making the Christ over in our own images. Isaiah gets God's agenda exactly right: "My plans aren't your plans, nor are your ways my ways" (55:8). So what are God's plans? What are God's ways?
God's ways embrace both praise and lament, Christmas and the cross. One story interprets the other. The Christmas message plays against the background of cross and resurrection. If the Christmas message stood alone, it would be sweet but trivial because the message would not touch the reality of human suffering. Incarnation is the divine commitment to take on the full range of human experience, not just the good parts. The suffering of dying? God through Christ has "been there, done that," experiencing the slow agony of death by crucifixion. The agony of watching one's own child die? God through the Father has been there, anguishing over the death of his son. Our suffering has already registered on God's body. God is with us in the midst of our anguish. Because of this, Paul writes to the Romans: "I'm convinced that nothing can separate us from God's love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created" (8:38-39). Because of Jesus, God-made-human, incarnation is the glue holding together both suffering and praise.
Excerpted from Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary by Paul Scott Wilson. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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