Have you ever noticed the pronounced hush that often attends the reading of Luke’s nativity story on Christmas Eve?
There is a deepening of the silence that normally accompanies the reading of Scripture, an increased attentiveness, an air of heightened expectation. Perhaps it is the solemnity of the evening, as we gather, candles in hand, to celebrate the birth of the Christ child. Perhaps it is the weight of tradition, aware that we listen to passages Christians have heard for centuries. But perhaps it is also the breathtakingly simple yet surprisingly powerful story of a young girl giving birth to her first child, attended only by shepherds and stable animals but heralded by angels above.
By all rights, of course, it’s a story that should not even have been noticed, let alone told again and again across millennium. After all, countless young girls gave birth that night and we remember none of them. Interestingly, the “smallness” of Mary’s story is set off by Luke’s narrative setting: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus… while Quirinius was governor.” Emperors and governors are apt subjects for dramatic narratives; unwed teenage mothers and their vulnerable babes are not. Yet Luke locates this simple story amid the powers and principalities of the age to make a claim: The child born to this young mother will change the course of history, and the fates of leaders and common folk alike hang in the balance of his destiny.
I suspect that, on one level, we’ve forgotten just how audacious, if not downright outlandish, Luke’s claim is. So accustomed to the slow and graceful reading of this passage, we may miss the irony of setting newborn beside emperor as if the two could possibly have anything to do with one another. At a deeper level, however, I have a hunch that we do recognize something of the absolute, even absurd vulnerability of Mary and her child, and that their very vulnerability may be a large part of what moves us.
Few of us, after all, have much experience with anything miraculous, be it the relatively small-scale miracle of turning water into wine or the grand event of resurrection that this humble beginning leads to. Yet the vulnerability of a newborn? The fear and hope bundled together in the heart of his mother? These are things we have felt in spades. How many among those gathered this Christmas Eve are coming with trepidation about a still beleaguered economy or a faltering relationship? How many come overshadowed by illness or filled with foreboding about the safety of a loved one serving abroad? How many come weighed down by caring for an elderly parent or disabled child?
The simple truth of the matter is that each and all of us, whether dressed in our holiday best or not, have been indelibly marked by the everyday hardships of this life and so are well acquainted with the sheer frailty of the unlikely lead characters in Luke’s tale. We instinctively feel for them, and each Christmas we are simultaneously surprised, humbled, and encouraged to hear the promise that God is at work through them for us.
In this respect, perhaps we are like the shepherds called from their fields. At the bottom of the socio-economic world of first-century Palestine, the shepherds have no right, no expectation, no hope in the world of being touched by the divine. Little wonder, then, that they are terrified by the appearance of the heavenly host. (It isn’t too much to wonder if perhaps they obey only because they can think of no other response to the angelic summons. “Let us now go…” indeed!) And so they run to the stable, stumble upon the tender — or is it meager? — scene of this mother and child and wonder what on heaven or earth they have seen. They tell others what they’ve witnessed — what else can you do when you’ve been touched by the divine? — and all are amazed by what has happened.
Here is the promise of Christmas in a nutshell. God deigns to dwell not with the high and mighty, but with the lowly, the unexpected, those considered “nothing” by this world. And here, amid the weakness and vulnerability of human birth, God makes God’s intentions for humanity fully known. God is love, John writes, and here Luke portrays that love made manifest, as God takes human form, the infinite becomes finite, and that which is imperishable becomes perishable.
The genius of Luke’s story, of course, is that he portrays all this through the simple, sympathetic, and even everyday characters of a young mother and common shepherds. If God can work in and through such ordinary characters, we are bid to wonder, perhaps God can also work in and through us. Luke wants, I think, to make sure we realize that it is not just human flesh “in general” that God takes on in Christ; it is our flesh. And it is not simply history “in general” that God enters via this birth, it is our history and our very lives to which God is committed.
So if there is only one thing that our people hear this Christmas Eve, perhaps it should be that this story of long ago is not only about angels and shepherds, a mother and her newborn. It is also about us, all of us gathered amid the candles and readings, carols and prayers. God came at Christmas for us, that we might have hope and courage amid the dark and dangerous times and places of our lives. This, in the end, is why we gather, so that as God entered into time and history so long ago through the Word made flesh, God might also enter our lives even now through the Word proclaimed in Scripture, song, and sermon. No wonder we grow quiet!
The appointed Old Testament lesson for Christmas Eve is always these poetic verses from Isaiah and likely, to be honest, will not be the basis of a sermon when Luke 2 is the Gospel reading.
Yet, even with this lectionary reality, year after year we continue to read Isaiah in tandem with Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth. How can these words of Isaiah lift up or draw attention to Christmas themes that might help us hear this good news of great joy in perhaps a different way?
While the lectionary begins the reading at verse 2, it is worthwhile to consider verse 1 for its historical and geographical (enter “Geography Maven”) significance. This is an example of how our modern day bibles make it more, rather than less, difficult to read scripture. 9:1 functions better as the conclusion to chapter 8, which is actually the versification in the Septuagint. The bulk of chapter 8 is words of judgment for Ahaz who has chosen to align himself with the Assyrians rather than God and to ignore the signs of God’s presence (see 7:14). Of course, the setting for First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) is the prophet’s counsel to the southern kingdom of Judah against the looming threat of the Assyrians (for a review of the history of Isaiah, see www.Enterthebible.org ).
The place names in 9:1 refer to the areas of the northern kingdom of Israel that became Assyrian provinces under the rule of the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III, around 733-732 BCE. Assyria is in the process of taking over the world as it was known then and Israel had already fallen. It will be only two-hundred years later for the southern kingdom to fall to Babylon. Why this history lesson? The people of 9:2 are the inhabitants of the northern kingdom, Israel.
Chapter 8 ends in darkness and despair that will surely come with the foretold Assyrian invasion. This sets the stage for a dramatic shift in imagery and mood that comes in verse 2. Out of the depths of oppression, depression, war, and separation from God, all symbolized by the presence of darkness (“They end up in the dark with nothing,” The Message, Eugene Peterson), comes assurance. Verses 2-7 signal the promise of a new king, a coronation hymn of sorts, one who will come from the royal Davidic line, who will bring light and life and hope to a suffering people.
It is important to observe that before verses 6-7 toward which Christian listeners immediately gravitate is an address of thanksgiving. Note the use of the second person “you” (9:3) before the change in tense to a future reality that will be made possible because of God’s never ending love for God’s people. The first words in this pericope are a statement of faith, trust, and gratitude for what the Lord has already done. Grounded in this certainty makes the next words of promise and future hope believable. While it appears that the powers of this world have a firm hold, God’s power will have the final victory.
It is helpful to remember that in the Hebrew Bible canon, the prophets are understood as historical books. The Hebrew Bible puts the prophets in their historical location and ends the Scriptures with the general writings (Psalms, Proverbs, etc.), whereas Christian Bibles end with the prophets as testimony to the anticipated Messiah believed to be Jesus Christ.
Situating Isaiah in its political, historical, literary, and geographical location might better witness to its meaning for Christians beyond the level of foretelling or prophesy as we tend to think about it, especially when it comes to the expectations of the coming Christ. In other words, what might happen when Isaiah is not only heard as proof of the fulfillment of God’s promises but as testimony to this aspect of God that is at the heart of who God is? In preaching Isaiah, there is the realization that God is not just about future plans but present promises here and now. In the midst of that which creates despair and darkness, God’s light shines as that which is the fulfillment of all that we need and everything that we wish could be.
On Christmas Eve, when candles burn bright to witness to the God’s light that shines in all of our darkness, we are reminded that this is not just a claim for tonight, or because of Jesus, but points to the nature of who God is and always has been. When the candles are extinguished, the lights put away, and the decorations stored until next year, this promise is indeed what we will need.
Is it too idealistic to think that Christmas Eve is one of those times when so many of us (if not all) are ready and willing to do what this psalm exhorts us to do?
Sing to the Lord, bless his name, tell of his salvation, ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name, bring an offering, worship the Lord. That is precisely the atmosphere on Christmas Eve, isn’t it? At least, that is the atmosphere we want to create. The psalmist has put words to our deep desires.
Even the motivation for these actions is made clear as the psalmist gives us reason for wanting to sing, bless, tell, ascribe, and worship. This is, in fact, a good cue for the preacher. Remind us why, on this holiest of nights, we have this urge to sing to the Lord. Clarify for us why we gather to worship the babe born in Bethlehem. Give us words for the reason we are so full of gratefulness. Letting the words of the psalmist guide you, you discover, first, the Lord has done marvelous works for us. Like what? Tell us. What are those marvelous works of the Lord you have seen in and around your community?
Next, the Lord is great and is to be praised and revered above all other gods. What could this mean on a night like tonight? Who would ever think of revering any other god but the one true, incarnate Lord whose birth we have been waiting to celebrate? You know better than I do what, for your congregation, is competing for reverence; yes, even on this holy night. However, none of these competitors, not one, can hold a candle to what God Immanuel has done and is doing. He is the one, true Lord who, unlike all the other gods, made the heavens. Yes, the God whom we worship this evening made the heavens. Made them! The competition shrivels at the thought of it.
Perhaps you noticed what I have been doing. I have been telling you of the Lord’s salvation, declaring his glory. In like manner, do this psalm for your hearers. Once you get going, my guess is it will be difficult to stop.
Technically speaking, Psalm 96 is one of eight “YHWH is King” psalms (Psalms 93-100 – next week we will encounter another). Since these psalms were likely composed for use at festivals, it is appropriate we encounter them at Christmas. Psalm 96 contains three parts comprised of calls to praise God followed by motivation for praise. Note that the imperatives in the first part of the psalm are verbs of speaking, that is, verbal verbs (sing, tell, declare). The verbs in the latter part of the psalm are verbs of worship, that is, kinesthetic verbs (ascribe, bring an offering, come into the courts, worship). In other words, eventually, our whole beings will be involved.
Whether or not this text is addressed explicitly in your sermon, the psalm nudges you toward creating a time of worship which is both verbal and kinesthetic. You may have visitors who, along with the rest of us, have a sense of wonder this night, but are only ready to put their heads in, and then maybe their right hand. By the end of worship, how might they too put their whole selves in? (In congregations I attend, generally we do not get to the, “And shake it all about.” Pardon the hokey moment.)
Not only does the psalmist call our whole beings, voice and body alike, to praise, but the whole creation joins in declaring praises to God and worshiping God. Actually the psalm begins with this invitation for all of creation to rejoice, “O sing to the Lord a new song, all the earth.” But, like I did when I first read this psalm (even though I have heard it a hundred times), you may have missed it. “Sing to the Lord all the earth!” Not just the earth’s left boot (Italy) or palm (Michigan), but the whole of creation will sing. Imagine the chorus comprised of the heavens, the earth, the sea and all that fills the sea, the field, all the crops, cattle in the field, the trees. Help those who are gathered hear creation’s verbal declarations (the bellows and the creaks) and see their kinesthetic acts of praise (bending with the wind, growing with the sunshine). This psalm is a call to proclamation and praise for all the world/all of creation.
Not even the word, judgment, in the psalm can jar us this night. The angels’ advice in Luke 2, “Do not be afraid,” is well-justified, for this newborn will judge the world with righteousness. He will judge the peoples with his truth; not a truth, or our truth, but with his truth. Oh, to be judged so fairly.
What the psalmist does not know is that we are not apt to declare, “He is coming.” Instead, on this holiest of nights, we will declare, “He is here!”
Get close. Look into the manger. What do you see there?
A baby? Of course. A savior? Yes. What else? An epiphany.
That’s what the Letter to Titus sees–on that night in Bethlehem and all throughout Jesus’ life. The author of the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy and Titus) is fond of speaking about epiphanies. Forms of the word appear twice in this brief passage: in verse 11 (epiphaino, translated as “appeared” in the NRSV) and in verse 13 (epiphaneia, translated as “manifestation”). In the reading for Christmas Day, another epiphaino shows up in Titus 3:4 (again, “appeared”).
Epiphany: You Don’t Have to Wait for January 6 The evocative potential of “epiphany” language has been eroded by American culture’s careless use of it to describe rushes of cognitive understanding and creativity. (“I had no idea what to get Mom for Christmas, then I had a sudden epiphany while walking through the mall!”) Ancient Greek speakers were accustomed to hearing about epiphanies as theological phenomena: these were manifestations of deities–in person or through representatives–through physical appearances, deeds, or oracles. The terminology implies a breakthrough, not of a mental insight, but of the Divine. An epiphany means a rupture in the divide between us and God.
This means the author of Titus isn’t messing around when he uses the word. The struggles of life leave us knowing well that most days we can hope for little more than a murky glimpse of God through the fog of uncertainty–“in a mirror, dimly,” to borrow Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 13:12. But speaking of an “epiphany” means something far beyond business as usual. It implies an arresting clarity of vision, a privileged moment in which God floods the obscurity wrought by human limitations with a bright light. God appears. God acts. God speaks.
Take this talk of Jesus as an epiphany and apply it to Christmas. What does the Letter to Titus have to say on Christmas Eve?
The Gospel stories that describe Jesus’ birth speak of it as ordinary and natural. (Even if the manner of his conception poses altogether different questions.) Such a birth makes us ask: what kind of epiphany is going on with the arrival of Jesus Christ? The canonical Gospels do not offer us the sort of bells-and-whistles epiphany imagined by, for example, The Protevangelium of James, a second-century piece of Christian apocrypha. That book describes Mary giving birth in a cave, while a blinding light within the cave prevents Joseph and a midwife from looking in until Jesus has fully emerged from his mother. I admit, this aspect of the story may have more to do with Mary’s modesty and the preservation of her virginal purity than does about commenting on Jesus’ divinity. But notice the message it sends about the birth: Keep away! Holy things are at work here! Mere mortals have only limited access!
By contrast, if we look at Matthew, Luke, and this year’s iteration of the children’s Christmas Eve pageant in light of Titus and the language it brings to the table, then we can say that epiphanies don’t always require special effects to make them genuine. God is capable of breaking through with clarity through more ordinary, even inviting ways. Jesus is a baby, born like most other babies. The biblical story does not restrict our access. You can look at him, touch him, and hold him. Shepherds are invited; magi, too. You don’t need a blinding light to know that God is present in the manger; the rest of the gospel message will show you that.
Living between Two Epiphanies So, what exactly is it that is made so clear in the Christmas epiphany, seen in a mother holding a newborn child? The Letter to Titus says the grace of God is manifested in Jesus Christ (verse 11). Nothing less than God’s gift of salvation shows up, clearly, in him. Reading on in verse 11, we learn that this grace brings salvation to all people. Yes, you read that right: all people.
Soon this passage from Titus turns to mention another epiphany, too–one more moment of clarity. This is the coming manifestation of Jesus, our God and Savior, in glory (verse 13).
Christmas reminds us of where we reside in history: between two epiphanies, between two tangible manifestations of God’s own Self. We live between the clear demonstration of God’s grace (embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Nazarene) and the clear demonstration of God’s glory, for which we wait as a “blessed hope” (verse 13) yet to come.
These truths are as beautiful to ponder as they are foundational to Christian faith. The Christmas Eve setting further encourages Christians to reflect on God’s gracious gifts in the past and God’s glorious promises for the future. But the Letter to Titus won’t let us get away with only happy thoughts.
Notice verse 12. The Letter speaks about epiphanies past and present precisely so that they might prod us to live a certain way “in the present age.” The Letter’s grand theological assertions are designed to call readers into action, into living lives that embody the gospel in ways appropriate for the contexts in which believers find themselves. The author of Titus knows that our “good deeds” (verse 14) are not the sum of the gospel; holy living becomes possible through the salvation that God provides. God is the one who purifies (verse 14). Yet, this does not make holy living an optional thing for those who have seen the light.
Living in Light of Christmas Preachers who take this biblical text seriously will not let verse 12 fall by the wayside, not even on Christmas Eve, when congregations are eager to get back to stuffing their stockings. The summons to a “godly” way of living is a centerpiece of Titus (and the other Pastoral Epistles), like it or not. The wider context of this passage is about exhortation–exhortation to a life of loyalty to God. Do not confuse the Letter’s call to virtuous living as simply an appeal for good behavior. Rather, this part of the canon commends a life of loyalty to God’s purposes because such a life visibly demonstrates God’s intention to save all.
We might therefore say that such a life is capable, God willing, of manifesting the character of God and the nature of the salvation that God accomplishes. (Fostering compassion for others and commitments to service seems a good place to begin, as we consider the shape of godly living.) The Letter to Titus fixes our vision on the big epiphanies, past and future, so that we might look for other ones in the outworking of God’s grace through our lives right now. Maybe these day-to-day glimpses of salvation and godliness expressed in the lives of believers are lesser epiphanies, but put them together and they can generate a pretty bright light.