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Christmas Eve / Day, Cycle A

Christmas matters! The texts continue to testify to how Christmas provides new insights about God, Christ (about Justification), and daily life (Sanctification), even concerning Social Ethics.

Psalm 96

Psalm 96 is a hymn celebrating God’s kingship, speaking of him as Yahweh. Along with Psalms 47, 93, 95, and 97-99, this may be an Enthronement Psalm originally used on a festival occasion when God was declared to be a king. Much of the Psalm reflects the Hebraic poetic style of Parallelism (in which rather than rhyming lines, successive lines of the poem repeat the same idea in different words, the succeeding line intensifying the previous one). This song is said to be a new one (v. 1), most liturgically appropriate given the new thing that God has done at Christmas. After exhortations to praise God (vv. 2-3), the Lord is extolled as a powerful creator above all the gods (vv. 4-6). We are called to ascribe all the glory due God (vv. 7-8). All the nations and the universe join this praise (vv. 7-13). Yahweh is said to come to judge the world with righteousness [tsedeq] (v. 13). Although in its original Hebraic context this could connote legal, judgmental actions on the Lord’s part or a legalism, most Old Testament scholars note that this attribute of God is not in any way punitive but more about relationship. Indeed, it has to do with God’s loyalty to his covenant in saving us, and even at times later in the Old Testament era the righteousness of God construed as something bestowed on the faithful (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 373, 376ff) in a manner not unlike Paul teaches happens to Christians in Christ (Romans 3:21-26). This point along with the reference in verse 13 to the Lord coming, could also be interpreted as pointing to Christ.

Application: The Psalm enables proclamation on how much praise we owe God for the events of this holy day, how the whole earth rejoices, and how idolatry has no chance now that God has become incarnate in a creature (Christology and Justification by Grace). The reference to the praise offered by the creation opens the way to sermons devoted to Creation and Ecology. And the concept of God coming to judge in righteousness suggests the possibility of a messianic interpretation so that we can proclaim that we become righteous through the righteousness of God come to us in Christ (Justification by Grace).

Isaiah 9:2-7

As has been the case in almost all the First Lessons through Advent, this text is a prophecy of the historical Isaiah, working in the Southern Kingdom of Judah in the eighth century BC. The text is a prophecy about the messianic king. It may have originally celebrated the accession of a new Judean king. This king is described as a great light [or] for those who had been in darkness [choshek], that, is in oppression (v. 2). Based on verse 1, presumably this is a reference to the liberation of the Israelite inhabitants of areas annexed by Assyria. Darkness is standard biblical imagery for oppression, and light is an image for relief from such oppression. This observation was readily applied to the Babylonian Exiles of the sixth century BC addressed in chapters 40 to the end of the book after this chapter pertaining to the earlier prophet is combined with the later chapters. Their exile was interpreted as having been contrary to God’s covenant aims.

The new king will make the nation more abundant, increase its joy, and break the oppressors’ rod, just as the great war hero of the tribe of Manasseh Gideon conquered the Mideanites (vv. 3-5; Judges 7:23–8:3). Reference is made to a child born for us, followed by comments about the mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (v. 6). These titles were customarily coronation names given to Egyptian kings at their accession. Read as prophecy the verse could refer to the Christ Child, who is identified with a loving God. This child is said to have authority to give endless peace, with justice and righteousness. He is identified with the Davidic line (v. 7). Peace [shalom] in this Jewish context refers not just to a state in which there is no combat, but to a state of well-being and thriving, to social justice (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 130). For the meaning of God’s righteousness [tsedeq], see the discussion above on the Psalm of the Day.

Application: Interpreted messianically the text sanctions sermons on the work of Christ giving light (royal relief from oppression), as he bears all our sin, removes our guilt, and ushers in an age of peace and social justice (in the Hebraic sense). Christology, Atonement, Justification by Grace, and Social Ethics are central themes.

Titus 2:11-14

This book is one of the Pastoral Epistles, along with 1 and 2 Timothy, so named because of their concern with pastoral leadership. It purports to be a letter of Paul to Titus, a Gentile colleague in ministry (Galatians 2:1-3). Likely, none of the pastorals were written by Paul. They differ from his authentic letters in vocabulary, style, and treatment of concepts like faith, law, and righteousness, characterized by more emphasis on good works, godliness, and church order. Also, many of the historical circumstances described in the Pastoral Epistles do not seem readily accommodated to Paul’s ministry described in Acts. This in turn suggests that they may not have been written until the second century as circular letters, written not to Titus or Timothy but to a general audience. While the other Pastoral Epistles address ascetic Gnostics (1 Timothy 4:3, 7; 2 Timothy 2:17-18), Titus engages debate more with leaders still maintaining fidelity to Jewish traditions (1:10, 14).

This text may be a fragment of an early Christian liturgy. It moves from an assertion of the grace of God and salvation given to all (vv. 11, 14) to a declaration that we have become a people of God zealous for good works (v. 14). This new life is described in terms of self-control and godliness, not being caught up in worldly passions of the present age (v. 12). These images are compatible with Hellenistic moral philosophy and in some sense remain in dialogue with the Gnostic asceticism critiqued in the other Pastoral Epistles. References in verse 13 to Christ’s coming [parousia] and his glory borrow the terminology of the imperial cult. We have in this text one of the few times a New Testament writer actually speaks of Christ as God.

Application: The text affords opportunity to proclaim the incarnation (Christology — God in Christ) and that he makes possible salvation for all (Atonement and Justification by Grace), a reality that makes us freely want to do good works and deny our selfish passions (Sanctification).

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

This unique and most detailed account of Jesus’ birth emerges from the most Gentile-oriented of the gospels. Originally combined with Acts as its companion volume, it seeks to stress the church’s universal mission to all people (Acts 1:8). As such, the books collectively defend Paul’s ministry. Usually they are attributed to Luke, a physician and associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24), whom tradition claims to have been Gentile. Addressed to Theophilus (1:1), which means “lover of God,” it is not clear if this means the work was written for a recent convert or for a Roman official from whom the church sought tolerance. It is also possible that the author addressed all the faithful under this name.

Most of what Christians believe about the Christmas story is drawn from this text. The literary context for the account is said to be a census called for by Roman Emperor Augustus (who reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD) (v. 1). Reference is made to Quirinius, who was Roman governor of Syria. This raises questions about the date of Jesus’ birth or the accuracy of this account, since he was not governor during Herod the Great’s reign in Judah (who according to Matthew 2:1 was on the throne of Israel when Jesus was born). Since Herod died in 4 BC, this seems to move the date of Jesus’ birth prior to the beginning of the Christian era. It is also unlikely that spouses like Mary would have traveled with their husbands to his home of family origin unless she owned property in that town (vv. 1-5). This lack of historical credibility for the account is not surprising, since the birth of Jesus is not even part of the earliest narrative traditions about Jesus (note its omission from Mark’s gospel).

When in Bethlehem (the Davidic home to which Joseph as an heir of David would have traveled [3:23-31]), Mary is reported to have borne her firstborn son and laid him in a manger because there was no room in the inn (vv. 6-7). It was common in biblical times in Israel for owners to reside with their animals. Next follows the report of the revelation of the birth to shepherds. This is most appropriate in view of the fact that David was also a shepherd (1 Samuel 17:15), and it likewise makes sense given the fact that Luke’s gospel is preoccupied with concern for the poor and lowly (6:20; 14:12-14; 16:19-31). The revelation by an angel is said to produce fear [phobeo] among these shepherds as they encounter the glory of God (they experienced the fear of God) (vv. 8-9). The angel comforts them, bringing the good news of the Messiah, whom they are told they can find in Bethlehem in a manger (v. 12). The angel is then joined by a heavenly multitude, presumably other angels [aggeloi], who praise God and sing of peace among those he favors (vv. 13-14). (See the discussion above in the notes on the Isaiah text about the term “peace” [eirene] in a Hebraic context; that the New Testament continues to employ the term this way is suggested by Rudolf Bultmann [Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 2, pp. 82-83]).

When the angels depart, the shepherds proceed to Bethlehem finding Mary, Joseph, and the child (vv. 15-17). All who heard the story are amazed. Mary is said to treasure these words and ponder them (vv. 18-19). The shepherds then return, glorifying God (v. 20).

Application: Like any Christmas sermon, the incarnation depicted in this text provides an invitation to reflect on the paradoxical character of God’s way of saving us (Christology, Providence, Justification by Grace). The proclamation of peace by the angels also provides an opportunity for a sermon on Social Ethics concerning the biblical concept of peace, that war is not God’s way, or to focus on God’s revelation to ordinary shepherds entailing God’s concern for ordinary people.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen