DECEMBER 25TH, 2017: CHRISTMAS Eucharist During the Day
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings glad tidings,
announcing peace, bearing good news,
announcing salvation, and saying to Zion,
"Your God is King!"
Hark! Your sentinels raise a cry,
together they shout for joy,
for they see directly, before their eyes,
the LORD restoring Zion.
Break out together in song,
O ruins of Jerusalem!
For the LORD comforts his people,
he redeems Jerusalem.
The LORD has bared his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations;
all the ends of the earth will behold
the salvation of our God.
Brothers and sisters:
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways
to our ancestors through the prophets;
in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son,
whom he made heir of all things
and through whom he created the universe,
who is the refulgence of his glory,
the very imprint of his being,
and who sustains all things by his mighty word.
When he had accomplished purification from sins,
he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
as far superior to the 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; this day I have begotten you?
I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me?
And again, when he leads the firstborn into the world, he says:
Let all the angels of God worship him.
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 to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but 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 to be through him,
but the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
but his own people did not accept him.
But to those who did accept him
he gave power to become children of God,
to those who believe in his name,
who were born not by natural generation
nor by human choice nor by a man's decision
but of God.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father's only Son,
full of grace and truth.
John testified to him and cried out, saying,
"This was he of whom I said,
'The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.'"
From his fullness we have all received,
grace in place of grace,
because while the law was given through Moses,
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has ever seen God.
The only Son, God, who is at the Father's side,
has revealed him.
No matter how much I try to put it out of my mind, I frequently think of White Christmas today; not because I’m sentimental about old-time Christmas songs, but because I teach Scripture. I often use it as an example in my courses.
Few noticed the song when Bing Crosby first sang it on his Christmas radio show in 1941, nor when it was put into the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. According to music historians, it only took off because so many soldiers were away from home at Christmas during World War II. As the war went on, its popularity continued to grow. Twelve years later a movie was made named White Christmas, and by now, it’s the number one best-selling song of all time. We only go back to its origins today because of its later history. Its eventual importance transformed the way we look at its beginning.
In many ways, the same thing happened to Jesus of Nazareth. We wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas today if he hadn’t eventually risen from the dead. Though we don’t have as many days off from school for Easter as we do for Christmas, there’s no way Christmas is as important for Christians as Easter. Jesus’ birth wasn’t even celebrated in the church for the first several centuries. (On the other hand, I presume Easter was commemorated the first year after the initial event.) December 25 was chosen not because it’s the actual date of his birth, but because of the later Roman pagan practices the church was trying to replace at the time. I won’t even get into the non-Christian origins of Christmas trees, lights, exchanging gifts and mistletoe. About the only specifically Christian tradition we have is Francis of Assisi’s Christmas crib, and it took almost 1,200 years for that to come into existence.
The problem is that Christmas without Jesus’ dying and rising isn’t a Christian feast; we’re forgetting what happened in order to make Jesus’ birth exceptional. Many of us can sympathize with a baby born in difficult circumstances, but never look at that baby as more than a baby, rarely noticing how his eventual dying and rising demands we also imitate his death and resurrection.
We can certainly echo Deutero-Isaiah’s proclamation that the feet of one who brings glad tidings are beautiful, but if we’re followers of Jesus of Nazareth, our initial faith proclamation has nothing to do with Christmas, but with Easter. Our ancestors in the faith became conscious of his death and resurrection long before they even thought about his birth. His dying and rising are the glad tidings they handed down to us.
In his famous book, The Birth of the Messiah, the late Raymond Brown is careful to explain Jesus’ “messianic moment:” the point at which Jesus actually became God. Most modern Christians follow the theology John puts forth in today’s gospel. Jesus is God from all eternity. The Word exists “from the beginning.” Our only question revolves around when that divine person became “flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
But, as Brown points out, a belief in Jesus’ preexistence as God only develops toward the end of the first century. Before then, beginning with Paul, who in Romans 1 seems to contend Jesus became God when his Father raised him from the dead, our sacred authors have different opinions, opinions I don’t have time or space to explore. Yet today it’s enough simply to know Jesus’ birth is a lot more complicated than just staging a grade school Christmas play. As the author of Hebrews states, God has spoken to us through “partial and various ways.” Perhaps even through a process similar to how Irving Berlin’s White Christmas became the all-time best seller.