Lectionary Commentaries for December 24, 2022
Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

Melanie A. Howard

For the Christmas Eve preacher, it may feel challenging to find anything new to say about this familiar story from Luke 2. What might possibly have been missed in the centuries throughout which this story has been told? It is precisely this act of attending to absences that might allow this old story to be experienced anew on this Christmas Eve. By attending to what is not in this text and looking for who is not in the settings where this text is proclaimed, we might be equipped to hear these words again as good news for all.

The View From the Shepherds’ Pasture

Unlike Matthew’s account of Jesus’s infancy, which includes exotic magi who travel from great distances to see the young Jesus, Luke’s narrative describes the initial revelation of Jesus’ birth to shepherds gathered in the fields (2:8). These shepherds are, perhaps, among the most important characters of this story because of their role as witnesses who can confirm the veracity of what has transpired. 

Despite some approaches to this account that try to emphasize the lowliness of the shepherds or the shamefulness of their position, the text itself offers no such critique. Rather, it presents these shepherds as worthy witnesses to Jesus’s birth.

Furthermore, the use of shepherding as a metaphor for ruling appears throughout the Hebrew Bible. In several texts, people who live under the rule of poor or absent kings are described as sheep without a shepherd (1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chronicles 18:16; Nahum 3:18). Shepherding also receives a positive spin in Psalm 23 where God is compared to a good shepherd who provides attention to the sheep in God’s care. In short, these precedents from the Hebrew Bible offer no suggestion that shepherding should be understood as a shameful profession. Rather, the work of shepherding appears to be an accepted way of describing how an ideal ruler should interact with those in their care.

Little detail is provided about the particular shepherds that we meet in Luke 2. Nonetheless, the text seems to assume that these shepherds are up to the task of receiving and responding to an important mission. They are given a commission to look for something that might not seem to be present. They are to search for significance in an otherwise mundane and quotidian occurrence: the birth of a child. 

While births are, undoubtedly, occasions for celebration, they are not clearly “signs” (2:12) that might otherwise be used as a marker of something of celestial significance. This birth, however, is different. Indeed, the angelic host that appears on the scene heralds the far-reaching impact of this baby’s birth as an occasion for praising the divine (2:13-14). In short, then, the shepherds are tasked with looking for what might not be immediately evident: cosmic significance within the mundane. Their ability to attend to what might otherwise appear absent serves as a helpful example for audiences today who might look for what is absent in this story and in our own communities.

Noting Absences

Luke’s infancy narrative may at first feel intimately familiar. Nonetheless, it is a story that through its re-telling has come to accrue several additions that are absent in the text itself. A scene in which a laboring Mary is going door to door with Joseph seeking out lodging is absent here. The translation of 2:7 in some versions can result in this misleading direction. The word sometimes rendered as “inn” might be better translated as “guest room.” Thus, one will look in vain for an innkeeper to turn away the holy family.

Furthermore, the text lacks any indication of the extent of Mary’s pregnancy upon arrival or her mode of travel. (There’s no donkey mentioned here!) Given what can be known of ancient conventions surrounding pregnancy and childbirth, it is highly unlikely that Mary and Joseph would have attempted the long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem at an advanced stage of pregnancy. Rather, it seems more likely that the couple would have traveled several weeks (or even months) prior to the birth in order to receive support and assistance from the family in Bethlehem from whom Joseph hailed (2:4).

Beyond these extraneous details, sometimes inserted in certain recitations of Jesus’s birth story, the scene of the birth is also notable for some of the “absences” that some audiences might encounter. Audiences looking for a barn or stable will find only a manger (2:7) that may well have been a feature of the lower level of most houses where some animals might have been brought inside for the night. A search in the text for these animals, though, will be in vain. The lowing cattle of Christmas carols are also absent. While shepherds watch their flocks in the field by night (2:8), no sheep are mentioned at the birth scene. 

Good News for All

The task of reading this familiar story with an eye to the details that are not there is a good practice for both the preacher and their congregations. That is, this practice encourages a careful and critical look at something that can feel so familiar that it may seem that nothing new can be discovered. 

Nevertheless, this practice of looking for what is absent can contribute to an equally helpful practice for families, congregations, and communities. That is, using the same skill of looking for what is absent in the infancy narrative, today’s audience of this text might be encouraged to consider who is absent from our celebratory Christmas Eve services, our family dinners, and our gift exchanges. Who is not being included in such holiday festivities?

By looking for and identifying those who are absent from our communities today, we can better proclaim the message of the angels to the shepherds: Jesus’ birth is good news for all people (2:10). This is not just good news for a few privileged recipients of an elite message. This is good news for all, even those who might be marginalized, oppressed, or otherwise absent from the spaces where good news is often proclaimed.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 9:2-7

Joel B. Kemp

In difficult times, many of us look for sources and symbols of hope. Sometimes we find them in nature, the arts, humor, or comforting memories. Often, we turn our attention to individuals who seem to possess a certain charisma, constellation of gifts, or unique skills needed in a particular situation. For some, the sights and sounds of new life spark a sense of possibilityan ember of hope to inspire amid challenging times. Our text in Isaiah 9:2–7, like Isaiah 2:1–5, finds a nation withering under Assyrian domination. The seemingly endless anguish and despair characterizing Isaiah 8 find a moment of respite, if not full release, in Isaiah 9:2–7. These verses capture a series of hopeful images promising the dawn of a new era in the nation’s history. These promises culminate in the birth of a special child whose ultimate coronation as king inaugurates an era of boundless peace, unencumbered justice, and endless joy.

Free at last

Isaiah 9:2 transitions us from the gloom and despair of the earlier oracles by contrasting the “light” of this new day with the “darkness” of the previous era. While describing this darkness, the same Hebrew word appears in Isaiah 9:2 and Psalm 23:4. In Isaiah 9:2b, the Hebrew word is translated as “deep darkness,” although in Psalm 23:4 it is translated as “shadow of death.” In both contexts, the deliverance of God emerges as an intervention that creates an antidote to the dangers confronting each author. For Isaiah, God’s reversal produces a joyous harvest in Isaiah 9:3, which the author emphasizes by using a Hebrew root meaning joy three times in the course of four words. This eruption of joy is then connected to an explicitly political and social liberation. The imagery of Isaiah 9:4 references tools military rivals and enemies of Judah deployed to establish their dominance. Thus, the breaking of bars, yokes, and rods envisions the shedding of Assyrian military oppressiona point the author emphasizes by referencing “the day of Midian” at the end of this verse. Similar to Isaiah 2:1–5, Isaiah 9:5 describes the repurposing of military paraphernalia for the flourishing of a society in a time of peace.

A hero comes along

Isaiah 9:6–7 contains imagery and language consistent with ancient coronation rituals known throughout the biblical world. These verses refer explicitly to the continuation of the Davidic lineage and kingdom promised in 2 Samuel 7. Given Assyria’s destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and their incursions upon Judean territories in the late 8th century BCE, the promise of a perpetual Davidic kingdom may have seemed untenable. Into this context, these two verses reiterate God’s commitment to the promises given to the nation centuries earlier. Similar to the patterns within Genesis, the reliability of God’s promises is connected to God’s ability to provide children who embody the future viability of the nation. So, the promised child in Isaiah 9:6–7 is a successor to continue the Davidic lineage rather than a future, idyllic king, as would emerge in later traditions. This promised successor helps to lead the nation into an era of prosperity and peace. According to the prophet, the new king establishes two essential pillars for this prosperous kingdom: justice and righteousness. Seemingly, as long as these two pillars remain intact, then the nation and its Davidic lineage will endure.  

Like other passages in Isaiah (Isaiah 7) and the biblical corpus (Psalm 2), the ascendancy of an ideal Davidic king becomes a guarantee of God’s reign on earth. In part because of these royal images and their connection to a godly kingdom, these verses resonate deeply within many Christian traditions. The opening words of Isaiah 9:6, “for a child has been born for us, a son given to us …” often appear in Christian liturgies around Advent and Christmas seasons. As a result, the subsequent descriptions in Isaiah 9:6–7 acquire a messianic meaning and become part of the prophetic previews of the life and work of Jesus Christ. The honorific titles (for example, “Wonderful Counselor,” “Prince of Peace,” et cetera) become associated with Christ and Christ’s roles as Savior and Lord. New Testament authors use Isaiah, perhaps more than any other prophetic book, to describe significant events in the life of Jesus. Whether at Christ’s birth (Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6–7) or death (Isaiah 53:3–5), the prophecies of Isaiah supply the New Testament writers with the raw materials to articulate the significance of Jesus Christ. 

The author concludes this section with a reminder of the ultimate source of this enduring kingdom and its re-emergence: “the zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” This concluding phrase buffers any expectations that the successor can achieve this noble goal without the “LORD of the army” fighting this battle for and with him. Although the LORD will do this, the prophet makes it clear the chosen successor has a role to play. Thus, the “endless peace” promised in Isaiah 9:6 can only occur when God, and God’s given representative, work in concert to establish and uphold “justice and righteousness.”


Commentary on Psalm 96

Beth L. Tanner

Let’s face it, this night belongs to the newborn Jesus, Mary and Joseph, along with shepherds, a chorus of angels and some sheep and cattle.1

It is a celebration of the birth of Jesus and a time when the church gathers to hear the familiar story and to sing Christmas carols with family and friends. It is one of the highlights of the church year.

To write about another text seems an effort in futility. All other texts will play supporting roles this night. But there is no more appropriate text to aid in telling the story than Psalm 96. The psalm is one of the Yahweh-melek psalms which praise God as King (Psalm 93, 94-99). It is embedded in our carols; “Joy to the world, the LORD has come,” “Peace on the Earth, Goodwill to All from Heaven’s all-gracious King,” “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds and angels sing.” Tonight the carols proclaim the same story as the angels — the baby is not ordinary, but is indeed King and Creator of All.”

Psalm 96 is exuberant praise of the King and Creator. Its focus is worship, and the call is for the whole world, the earth and all that is in it, and the heavens to sing the praises of the LORD. It opens with a call to “sing a new song” and this night calls for a new song, for God has sent the Son to live among us and show us the way to salvation and a righteous life. Tonight once again, God has a new song for an old people, another chance to start over and hear the amazing stories of this One. The response to that new song is to join in the celebration offered by God to the world (verses 1-3).

The call to sing is followed by the reason for our praise, and it is centered in God as the Creator of all. Christmas Eve is not often a time when God as the Creator is praised. Yet, the wonder of creation is on full display: the animals in the stable, the stars in the sky, the baby, the new parents. They all testify to the wonderous creation of our Lord which surrounds us every day. This baby and its new family are not tucked away in a bedroom in a house of servants and stuff, but in the world where creation and its gifts surround the child. The next seven verses are calls to praise that move through that very creation.

Verses 7-9 focus on the “families of the peoples.” Here there is no division into denominations, or cultures, or political parties. We are families of peoples, related by the Creator who we are called to praise. The psalm calls us to declare the Lord’s attributes on which the world is founded: glory and strength. It calls all to worship and together bring offerings and enter God’s presence. It is the call to worship as announced by the angels. The shepherds follow from their fields to the stable. These shepherds represent all the families of peoples as they bow before the baby.

In verse 10, the nations are called to declare “the Lord is king.” It is easy to pass over this verse, but if you look at it, it is radical theology. From the moment this baby draws a breath and even before the angels sing, this baby is seen as a threat by those currently holding power. Encapsulated in verse 10 is all the reasons that this baby’s story will pass through Golgotha. Rome will tolerate no other king and a message of “judging all of the people with equity” will not be well received by those in Judah who see themselves as superior to others and more deserving of God’s favor. Jesus’s message will shake the foundations of power. The nations here are called to set aside their own visions of power and praise the one who is truly King. It is a vision that we are still waiting to fulfill.

Verses 11-12 adds creation to the chorus: the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the fields and all that is in them and the trees will all sing to the Lord of all. By verse 12 everyone, every principality, every tree and bird and fish and flower are called into a loud chorus of praise for their Creator and King. It is on this night, that just for a few moments, we can almost believe this is possible. Imagine all the world engaged in nothing but praise!

The psalm ends with the reason for all of this praise and jubilation; the Lord “is coming to judge the earth.” So often God’s judgment is seen as a way to vindicate some and destroy others, in other words, an instrument of power. But here in this psalm, we praise God because God will judge the world with righteousness and the people with truth. The King has come and now is time to raise voice and instrument and tree and stars an flowers and sheep to sing, and sing, and sing “Joy to the world; the Lord has come!”


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 24, 2018.

Second Reading

Commentary on Titus 2:11-14

Luis Menéndez-Antuña

For the Nativity of Our Lord, the Revised Common Lectionary proposes two texts from one of the Pastoral Letters (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus). Titus 2:11-14, the text under consideration here, is scheduled for Christmas Eve, whereas Titus 3:4-7 will be read on Christmas day. Both texts, short theological treatises of their own, put forward a theology of salvation for all people (2:11) while focusing on the moral obligations that being part of the Christian faith entails (2:12; 3:7). 

Liturgically, it makes sense that both texts have been chosen for these dates as they include several literary motifs that emphasized God’s manifestation (epiphany in 2:11 and 3:4). In Titus 2:13, the author implies that such manifestation has happened, but it is also an event we are hoping for. The Lectionary seems then to link such expectation to the imminent birth of Jesus, “Our Savior” (2:13). These texts are also appropriate because they skip, even as they allude to, the gruesome reality of the cross: both mention that Jesus gave himself for us without naming how such salvific action takes place (2:14; 3:5). It is worth noticing that neither this letter nor any of the other Pastoral Epistles contain any reference to the cross or to the process of crucifixion.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Titus belongs, together with 1 and 2 Timothy, to the “Pastoral Letters.” Most scholars agree that this is a pseudepigraphic corpus. Although they claimed to be written by Paul, it is highly unlikely that the apostle penned these writings. They are most likely written by an author in the Pauline circle, probably one generation or two after Paul’s death. This fact is relevant not so much for what it says about authorship but for the consequences of understanding church developments. These letters are called “pastoral” because the authors focus on practical elements concerning communal rule rather than on doctrinal disputes. Instead of contesting beliefs about who belongs to the group or making the case for Jesus as God’s son, the Pastoral Letters are concerned with inward/outward community boundaries: 

  • How should members of the Christian community behave so that the community remains in peace? 
  • How should communities navigate their relationship with the Roman Empire? 
  • In other words, what does the community remain faithful to its own identity as it becomes increasingly visible and established within the society at large? 

The concerns addressed in these questions partly explain why these verses summarize the good news even as they skip the reality of the cross, a way of torture that the Roman Empire deployed to chastise insurrectionists. In other words, these questions signal that the addressed community, or the author writing to them, worries about how to be “good” and “respectable” citizens. Subsequently, the text in question is not theology in the abstract, it is a kerygmatic proclamation that uses theology to rein in practices that, at least in the author’s mind, were getting out of control. Scholars have long noticed how initially marginalized groups, religious or not, become institutionalized by adapting their practices and beliefs to mainstream cultural norms. In the case of the developments in early Christianity, the Pastoral Epistles offer an example to look more closely at such dynamics: the more these communities became visible, the more they catered to the pressures of the Roman Empire. The domestic codes might be interpreted as an attempt to fit into imperial mores (see below). 

Scholars have also pointed out that the Pastoral Epistles evince a more structured community than the ones present in the rest of the Pauline canon. It makes sense that as groups evolve over time, they become more institutionalized, starting to develop offices and structure their members’ functions more rigidly. This is important for our text because, although it seems like a liturgical/kerygmatic piece, its reference to good works is not abstract, universal, or acontextual. God gives salvation to all through Jesus, who gives himself up for us (2:14). The consequence is immediate: the believer is stripped of any wrongdoing, gets their heart purified, and their heart is led into good works. The theological condensation can hardly be more packed: the religious credo is closely tied to ethical behaviors.  

What are the ethical consequences? To answer this question, we have to look right before and after the pericope. Titus 2:15 invites preaching with authority while submitting to the established authorities. Right before this pericope, we encounter one of the New Testament household codes. A literary genre in itself,  the domestic codes express conduct-related rules addressed to different members of the household. Although the types of addressees vary, the ethical import remains the same: husbands, wives, children, and slaves are routinely included. In this case, the code addresses presbiteros and presbiteras (although it is not clear whether it refers to an office) and the younger members whom these older men/women need to educate. The instructions are highly gendered, with an emphasis on women working at home and being submissive to their husbands (2:5). The code ends with instructions to the slaves (not to the slaveowners). Here the emphasis is on submission and accommodation, mirroring the accommodation that the Empire requires of the assembly to continue functioning. 

The placing of an allegedly generic theological reflection next to a highly hierarchical set of instructions reminds the contemporary interpreter that theology is never acontextual and that even abstract and generic invitations for “love,” “good works,” or “justice” only acquire meaning in the context of material circumstances.