Cycle A, B, C – Homily – Christmas Liturgy
© 2022 by Roberta M Meehan
I Vigil Service
Psalm 89:4-5, 16-17, 27, 29
Acts 13:16-17, 22-25
Psalm 96:1-3, 11-13
Psalm 97:1, 6, 11-12
Ideally a church – be it a denomination or a congregation or a parish or whatever – celebrates Christmas with four liturgies from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day. The four sets of readings are listed above. These readings are the same for all three liturgical years. That is the ideal – and rightly so because Christmas is such a rich and momentous occasion on the Christian calendar.
In reality, however, most groups have neither the time nor the means nor the wherewithal to present the entirety of the Christmas continuum (four full liturgies with accompanying explanations) on Christmas. Often this means the churches select parts of (or readings from) one or more of the liturgies and with that try to envelop the true meaning of this magnificent feast.
I encourage you all to take some time during this Christmas week to read over the liturgies and discover the deeper messages Christmas has for all of us. For now, let us look at each of the liturgies as a part of the whole – the whole story of the manifestation of God in our lives. As you do so, remember the mindset of our religious ancestors and remember too that they neither thought nor wrote with the scientific exactitude that we 21st Century people do. We are literal; they were figurative. Both are good, but not identical.
The theophanic crescendo of the Christmas story begins humbly and prophetically with the vigil liturgy.
Theophany – the manifestation of God…. That is what this Christmas story is all about – the story about how God came to be with us. Indeed, this is the story of the beginnings of how we came to be known as the People of God.
Four separate liturgies (vigil, midnight, dawn, day) are used to tell our Christmas story and each liturgy becomes more intense than the preceding liturgy, building – crescendo-ing, as it were – until we reach the gospel of the final liturgy and we are told without any doubt who this Jesus – this Babe of Bethlehem – really is.
The liturgy of the vigil establishes the claim of Jesus – a prophecy from the Book of Isaiah, followed by an explanation of Jesus as the rightful heir of David from the Acts of the Apostles, and culminating in a legal genealogy of Jesus – a point of utmost importance to Matthew's Jewish audience. Yes, there could be no doubt. Jesus was the prophesied biological and religious descendent. Jesus was the rightful heir to the prophesy; his claim was valid!
The liturgy at midnight tells the story of the birth of Jesus – a prediction from the Book of Isaiah, followed by an explanation of the meaning of Christmas from the letter to Titus, and concluding with Luke's beautiful story of the birth of Jesus. We feel we are there with the shepherds as they hear the angels’ message and the crescendo of the heavenly music – “Glory to God in the highest!” The birth is proclaimed. It is not limited to a few relatives and friends; it is for everyone.
The liturgy at dawn explains that Jesus was the timelessness of the Savior – another prophecy from Isaiah, another description from Titus, and finally the story of the shepherds and what they did after hearing the angels. The shepherds went to Bethlehem to find this infant who was wrapped in swaddling clothes. Swaddling clothes were the clothes of royal infants, not the child of drifters from out of town, And the baby was lying in a manger, not in a royal crib.
The theophany culminates with the liturgy of Christmas Day – a poetic exhilaration from Isaiah, followed by a prosaic wonderment from the Letter to the Hebrews, and at long last the prologue from the Gospel of John – a hymn pronouncing the Messianic message from the beginning of all time.
Allow me to use these four scriptural sequences (transitioned and paraphrased slightly for clarity's sake) to retell the story of the beginnings of our salvation.
CHAPTER I - Our God will not be quiet until the vindication of Jerusalem shines forth and until her victory is like a burning torch. This is the glorious crown in the hand of God, the royal diadem held by our God. But, we state, as did Paul, "Israelites and you others who are God-fearing, listen. As it is written, 'I have found David, son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will carry out my every wish.' And it is from David's descendants that God has brought to Israel a savior – this man Jesus."
Who is this Jesus and what right does he have to claim this throne? His genealogy, his legal heritage, is clear from Abraham on through Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and of Mary was born this Jesus, this long-awaited Christ.
CHAPTER II - This child is born unto us and upon his shoulders dominion rests. His name is Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful. This is the appearance of the glory of our great God; this is the savior, Jesus the Christ. Even the shepherds have been told that in David's city a child is born – the Christ - and they are not to be afraid.
CHAPTER III - These holy people, to whom this child is born, they are redeemed by God. We are these people. This God has saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewed us by the Holy Spirit. When the shepherds saw the child, they made known the message and all who heard the message were amazed.
CHAPTER IV - The excitement is unbounded. We must break out in song. God has comforted the people and has redeemed Jerusalem and it is known that all the ends of the earth will behold the salvation of our God. He accomplished purification from sins and he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high. And he can trace his inheritance to that moment before the timeless eons began. Because…
In the beginning was Wisdom and Wisdom was with God and Wisdom was God. Wisdom was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through Wisdom, and without Wisdom nothing came to be. What came to be through Wisdom was life and this life was the light of the human race, and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. And Wisdom became flesh and dwelt among us. And we saw Wisdom's glory, the glory of God's Wisdom, full of grace and truth. From Wisdom's fullness we have all received grace, and grace and truth come through Jesus the Christ! And Jesus the Christ is the enfleshment of the Wisdom of God.
Dr Roberta M Meehan