Today in the Spirit: Christmas Day A

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Two days prior to the delivery of a package Amazon sends you an email saying, “Your package will arrive soon;” then again one day prior, “Your package will arrive tomorrow;” then, finally, on the day of delivery, “Your package has arrived.” It is all exciting; the early notifications play an important role in building up your anticipation for the final one. But in the end it is that final notice with its transition from the future to the perfect verb tense–”will arrive” to “has arrived”–that propels you to the front door on a mission to find the package. For centuries longer than Amazon, the liturgical church has employed this same strategy in making the transition from Advent to Christmas. You can hardly miss the abundant use of the perfect tense in the prayers and readings for Christmas Day and throughout the Christmas season: From Luke 2, Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; from Titus 3, For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men; from Isaiah 9, The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; and in the Collect, Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him. In the messaging of the church for Christmas the question arises: How will the transition in language from “will arrive” to “have arrived” affect you?  

The Collect

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen

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Have Seen a Great Light (Isaiah 9:1-7)

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone (2).

To have seen a great light is not the same as living in the light. And for a child to be born king is not the same as living under the dominion of that king in the full flowering of his power. There is indeed hope for the people of Judah and Israel in this passage, and in their desperate situation at the time of Isaiah’s preaching they would have been greatly encouraged to hear these words. There is no sense of contingency in this prophecy: The bright future is a certainty–but it is in the future. Even now in Christ, with Jesus having grown to adulthood and having completed his saving ministry of dying, rising and ascending, and the Holy Spirit having been poured out, we still walk in darkness toward a light which we see from a distance. Yes, there is a present reality to the light of Christ in the world–greater than in Isaiah’s day–but let’s be careful not to insist that we ourselves and others around us operate in an all-enveloping brightness that is not yet available to us. We become needlessly discouraged, frustrated and mean-spirited when we do. So as we move to Christmas we do not forget not the admonitions of Advent to be patient in hope: Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming (James 5:7, in the Epistle reading for Advent 3). Today, Holy Spirit, at Christmas this year, fill my heart with joy over the light ahead even as I walk by it and toward it with darkness all around.     

Sing to the LORD (Psalm 96)

Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
    sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
    tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
    his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
    he is to be feared above all gods (1-4).

Who is the choirmaster calling out Sing to the LORD in this psalm? Is it Asaph and his associates assigned by King David in Jerusalem (see how this psalm also appears in the historical narrative of 1 Chronicles 16)? Is it an elder in heaven in front of a multitudinous assembly of singers earthly and angelic? Whatever the case, however we imagine it, we cannot help but be bowled over by the attitude of presumption on the speaker’s part regarding the greatness and uniqueness of the One God. People of other nations worshiping other gods may want to object. Modern day Sunday worshipers distracted by life concerns may want time to settle in. This psalmist will not be deterred. Fall in, says this psalmist without apology: Sing to the LORD!. Today, in the Spirit, full of gratitude for the new life the Father has made known in all the earth through the Son, rousing ourselves from sleep and putting aside every conceivable objection, we stand to join the chorus praising the Lord. 

The Grace of God Has Appeared (Titus 2:11-14)

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (11-14).

This entire passage is a single sentence by Paul. He writes that way here and elsewhere in his letters not because it’s stylish Greek but to bring together ideas that can too easily be separated in the minds of his audience. The running together of clauses has the effect of communicating to Titus that everything given by God–the in-carnation of Christ, the purifying training of Christ by his Holy Spirit and the return of Christ–is of a piece: it is all the grace of God appearing. So at this season of Christmas let’s be sure to take a cue from Paul’s wording and punctuation and make our celebration something far greater than the joy over the birth of a special child. Today, in the Holy Spirit, we behold, here at last, the execution of the key play in the Father God’s overarching plan to glorify himself and to redeem for himself a beloved people. Grace has appeared and gushes out continually now. Joy to the world!

Treasure Up All These Things (Luke 2:1-20)

And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth (6).

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! (13-14).

But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart (19).

For Christmas Day every year the church assigns these verses as the Gospel reading. That is, of course, because it is the only place in the Gospels we find the details of our Lord’s birth day. But this narrative is also unique for its portrayal of events being played out in heaven and earth simultaneously–baby born in a barn; shepherds watching in the field; angels from heaven singing. This is not just an account of the activities of people on earth like we find in other Gospel stories, nor is it an isolated heavenly vision like we find in Isaiah or Daniel. Our Christmas Day reading is an unveiling (maybe like the Transfiguration accounts or certain judgment scenes in the book of Revelation) of everything happening everywhere–as much as that can possibly be reduced to words. No wonder Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. Through the rest of the days of her hard life, she will call on the memory of this unveiling for encouragement to take each new step forward. Today, in the Spirit, to celebrate Christmas Day we likewise deposit Luke’s unveiling of the Incarnation in our hearts so that courage may be stored up for our lifelong walk with the Son of God.

Today in the Spirit

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Published on

December 19, 2022

Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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