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Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures:
Proper I: Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96:1-13, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
Proper II: Isaiah 62:6-12, Psalm 97:1-12, Titus:3:4-7, Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20
Proper II: Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98:1-9, Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12), John 1:1-14

We are given three different sets of reading for Christmas Eve/Christmas. Some churches celebrate, in most years, a Christmas Eve liturgy, a Christmas Day liturgy, and a Christmas Sunday liturgy. With all those liturgies bunched together this year---on Saturday night and Sunday, we are given the “proper” readings for each. I simply view it as a larger smorgasbord to choose from to feed our souls as we seek to understand and celebrate a holy birth—and perhaps the holiness in all births.

I was born early on a Sunday morning. I suppose that Sunday was a little complicated for my parents. Any birth complicates things—whether it’s Sunday or not. The birth of Jesus was no exception.

Life can never be the same after any birth. I was present at the birth of two of my children—one of them by Caesarean. There was wonder and awe in that moment. Where did this living, breathing, creature come from? What will he or she become? Can I handle what this birth means? Can I cope with the changes it will bring?

The various readings offered by the lectionary suggest several possible areas of reflection as we prepare for the official liturgical beginning of the “Christmas” season this Sunday.

1. The birth of a child is something to be celebrated. The readings are full of celebration. Isaiah 9 speaks of the coming of a great light (vs. 1) which has “increased” the “joy” of the nation. “They rejoice before you as with joy at harvest.” (vs. 2) Isaiah 52 & 62 celebrate the rebirth of Jerusalem, a rebirth Christians centuries later, connected with a Messiah (Jesus) who would usher in a New Jerusalem. “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem;” we read in Isaiah 52:9, “for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.” The Psalms sing for joy and the earth rejoices. “O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.” (Psalm 96:1) “Let the earth rejoice; let the coastlands be glad!” (Psalm 97:1) “O sing the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things . . . Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous sing and sing praises.” (Psalm 98:1 & 4) In the story of the birth of Jesus as told in Luke, the angels (“a multitude of the heavenly host”) sing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 1:13-14) The shepherds who come to worship returned to the fields, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen . . .” (Luke 1:20)

How do we celebrate the birth of Jesus—or any birth? What songs do we sing? Some families make much of birthday celebrations, celebrating the growth that occurs and the possibilities that still are ahead. What might it mean to think of Christmas as a big birthday party?

2. Birth involves rituals of naming. Parents have often thought about possible names long in advance. Sometimes the names represent family heritage, popular heroes, currently trendy names, names that reflect place or month of birth (Denver or May), popular values and concepts (Hope, Joy, etc.). In some cultures a name may embody some attribute or hoped-for destiny to be lived into—Running Bear, Mighty Healer, etc.

What do names mean anyway? They signify the whole bundle of life embodied in this individual. No words of description quite catch up all that I am, but when someone speaks my name, they refer to my entire being—even the parts that person doesn’t know or understand. Names have an element of aspiration and hope. Each birth represents potential to be lived into.

I was Jim (or Jimmie or James) from the day I was born. The cells of my body have been many times replaced. My understanding of the world, my beliefs, my relationships have changed and developed over time, but I am still Jim. Every experience, including those yet to come, are contained in that name we are given.

Jesus was known by many names. His being was beyond capture by one name, so followers through the ages have used many words. The list of names in Isaiah 9:6 have been applied to him: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” He has been called “Light”. (See Isaiah 9:2, Psalm 97:4, John 1:4, 7-9) The Gospel According to John calls him “the Word” which was from the beginning. (John 1:1) “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.” (vs. 14)

His ancestry, and those who were God’s spokespersons before him, mattered His father, Joseph, was "descended from the house and family of David.” (Luke 1:4) He was somehow the “Son” of God. “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.” (Hebrews 1:1-2, with development and description in the verses following) Both Luke and Matthew record his genealogy.

Among the more difficult names to understand and interpret, for those in the progressive stream of Christianity, are Messiah (Christ) and Savior, yet they are central to biblical history. The letter to “Titus”, not where most would think of going for Christmas scriptures, speaks of waiting “for the blessed hope and manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ”—not “Son of God” here, but “God.” (Titus 2:13) The reading from chapter three begins, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us . . .” It is through Jesus Christ (Messiah) our Savior that the Spirit has been “poured out on us richly.” (Titus 3:4-6) The angels, in Luke, announce to the shepherds, “ . . . to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

Most of the discussion at our weekly breakfast this morning had us trying to clarify what it means to call Jesus “Savior.” Thank God we didn’t come up with a definitive creed. Christmas is a time to continue to reflect on all the names applied to Jesus and let their meanings continue to come to fruition in him and in us.

Psalm 96:8 tells us to “ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name.” (See also Psalm 96:2—“Sing to the Lord, bless his name.”) Although not written specifically about Jesus, it speaks about the signficance of a name, and realizing the fulness of a name. The reading from Hebrews speaks of Jesus as “the reflection of God’s glory” (Hebrews 1:3) and John’s Gospel tells us that “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.” (John 1:14)

What does it mean for someone to live up to a name, to realize his or her full glory? In the reading from Isaiah 62, we see that the people are given some names: “The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord,” . . . “Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.” (vs. 12) Followers of Christ in our day are sometimes named after him, i.e., “Christians.” What does it mean for us to live into that name? The gifts we open at Christmas time usually come with name tags on them. Names are important whether applied to Jesus or to us. Can Christmas be a time when we focus on the full meaning and potential of names—those applied to Jesus and our own? Who are these children born in mangers and hospitals and homes?

3. Finally, in these readings we see a number of references to justice and righteousness and peace. When the expected Messiah/King comes, “there shall be endless peace . . . He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness . . .” (Isaiah 9:7) Psalm 96 tells us “he will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.” (vs. 13—See also Psalm 98:9 which has the exact same words except for “equity” in place of “truth”) “ . . . righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne.” (Psalm 97:2) The reading from Hebrews describes the “Son” as loving “righteousness” and hating “wickedness.” (Hebrews 1:9)

The biblical expectations associated with the birth we celebrate at Christmas involve great upheaval, the righting of wrongs and injustice. Things are turned upside down. Light proves to be more powerful than darkness. (John 1:5) Titus doesn’t seem to speak in the same grandiose terms, but suggests a revolution brought about by the “grace of God” bringing “salvation to all.” It is to be expressed now in “lives that are self-controlled, upright, godly.” (Titus 2:11-12) The result of Jesus giving “himself for us” is “a people . . . who are zealous for good deeds.” (vs. 14) May our Christmas meditations direct us toward those places where peace and justice are shining in the darkness, that we might fan the flames of that light through good deeds large and small.

Birth—a time to celebrate and reflect and ponder. There is, indeed, much to ponder as we consider the potential of each life and name. Mary, it says, treasured this moment and pondered it in her heart. Maybe pondering is the most important thing we can do this Christmas—considering the many possibilities opened to us in this event and these scriptures which offer us interpretations and meanings.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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