This year we use the first set of readings at both the evening eucharist and the one at Midnight.
Some verse from these readings were famously set by Handel in his oratorio Messiah; links are provided to performances of these pieces on-line.
Isaiah 9.2-7: The Messianic King
The opening verses speak of the deliverance of the northern territories (Zebulun and Naphtali, which were later to be known as Galilee) which were the first to be subjugated by Assyria. These are ‘the people who walked in darkness’.
In verse 3, the day of Midian refers to Judges 7, when God gave victory to Gideon over the Midianites who were oppressing Israel.
In its first use, verse 6 referred to the fact that the enthronement of a king was conceived as God’s adoption of the king as his son. While this may originally have referred to Hezekiah, he did not fulfill the hopes, and the prophet pushed his hopes into the later future. For Christians a deeper meaning of these words was revealed in the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem.
4-6: The Lord is the mighty creator; all other gods are nothing.
7-13: All nations and the physical; universe are summoned to join in his praise.
In the beauty of holiness (verse 9) is better rendered as in holy array; the word translated ‘beauty’ means ‘adornment, glory’.
The appropriateness of this psalm for Christmas is revealed in verses 12 and 13 (in the BAS; verse 13 in other versions, which speaks of the Lord’s coming to judge the earth. I sometimes wonder if the well-known hymn Joy to the World was meant to be a sort of response to the Psalm,
THE HOLY GOSPEL OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST ACCORDING TO LUKE 2.1-14(15-20)
I (verses 1-7). The Birth of Jesus, Caesar Augustus having ordered a census of his empire, the first census being taken while Quirinius is holding office in Syria, everybody goes to his own city to be enrolled. Accordingly Joseph goes from Nazareth to Bethlehem, taking Mary with him. There she gives birth to a firstborn son, whom she lays in a manger, because there is no room for them in the inn.
II (verses 8-20). The Bethlehem shepherds. Shepherds watching their flock at night in the neighbourhood of Bethlehem are startled by seeing an angel and the light of God’s glory. The angel reassures them, saying he is a messenger of good news, and announcing that a Saviour, even the long-expected Christ, has been born in the city. They will find him in a manger. Suddenly the angel is surrounded with a heavenly host, singing of glory to God and peace on earth. After the vision has passed, the shepherds set off at once for Bethlehem and find the babe as described. They give an account of their vision, which occasions wonderment ; but Mary treasures these things in her heart. The shepherds return, glorifying God.
Some comments: 1. Caesar Augustus: Octavian, great-nephew of Julius, became the first Roman emperor; he reigned B.C. 31 to A. D. 14. His reign brought peace and stability to the whole Meduiterranean world, which was seen as providential by early Christians, since the Roman Peace enabled the Christian message to spread. But the Gospel contrasts this ruler who was hailed as the restorer of world peace with Jesus, the Saviour (2.11) and bringer of peace (2.14). The NRSV assumes ignorance and possibly stupidity on the part of the reader by giving Emperor Augustus in place of the correct reading. The title of Emperor was not used in that way then.
2. This was the first enrolment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. There are historical problems with Luke’s chronology: Quirinius was governor of Syria in ad 6-7 and not during the reign of Herod (see Luke 1.5), whole ruled 37-4 bc. Further, except for this passage there is no evidence for a world-wide census such as it describes. There have been several attempts to tidy up the problems, but the most realistic view is that Luke’s dating is confused. But as Adeney put it in his commentary on Luke, ‘even if it should be conceded that [Luke] was in error as to the census here described, that is not sufficient ground for discrediting his narrative of the birth of Jesus, as it only concerns one of the accessories. For further reading on this, and anything else about this census, see Brown, Birth of the Messiah.
4. Joseph went up from Galilee to Bethlehem: this might just be a covnentional way of speaking, but it is worth remembering that both Jerusalem and Bethlehem are on high ground, some 2,500 feet above the sea level. The Dead Sea, a mere 35 miles off, is 422 metres (1,385 ft) below sea level. The city of David: see 1 Samuel 16. Bethlehem means House of Bread.
7. Her firstborn son: scholars argue as to the implications of ‘firstborn’; it does not necessarily imply that there were others (see Exodus 13.2, 11-16), but we will cerainly not settle the question here. Manger: this word is from the French manger, to eat; it means a feeding-trough. The manger is important: Luke mentions it three times (2.7, 12, 16) Oddly enough the word crib originally meant a manger or a storage bin for fodder, and only came to mean ‘a child’s bed with barred sides’ because of the Nativity story. It is ultimately from a Germanic word Krippe, corn-crib, which by another route developed into the French crèche. For the familiar ox and ass of pageants and folklore, see Isaiah 1.3. No room … Brown says that ‘no place’ would be better because ‘no room’ implies ‘there was not a room’, which is not the same thing. … at the inn. Luke does not use the normal word that means inn, but a vaguer one (kataluma) that means a lodging. (We don’t have space to go into this; you really should read Brown.) Despite generations of retelling and Church-School Pageants, there is no mention of an inn-keeper (or his wife or family) in the text. For further information on what type of lodging Luke might mean, see Brown. What is more interesting is that the word kataluma appears one more time in the Gospel, at 22.11, when Jesus refers to the place where he will eat the Last Supper as a kataluma. The NJBC comments:
8. The Shepherds may remind us of David, who was raised from tending the sheep to become king and shepherd of the people (Psalm 78.72), but ‘in accord with Luke’s theme of poverty’, the shepherds are the poor and lowly. Keeping watch … by night: much ink has been spilled by scholars arguing about the time of year when shepherds would have been out in the fields all night. Since, as Brown puts it, ‘it is most unlikely that any reliable tradition about the exact date of birth would have survived’, there is little point in spending time on this point. Literally, ‘keeping the watches of the night’. They would watch by turns, with fires burning to scare wild beasts. So Brown, ‘taking turns watching over their flock by night’. This passage, ‘for popular piety, has fixed night as the time of Jesus’ birth’. That it was ‘Midnight was suggested by the application of Wisdom of Solomon 18.14-15 to the birth of Jesus: ‘When all things were in quiet silence, and the night in its swift course was half spent, Your all-powerful word leaped down from heaven’s royal throne’ [Brown].
9. An angel; not named unlike Gabriel in chapter 1; note that in v. 15 the shepherds say of the angel`s message that `the Lord` has made it known to them. And they were terrified; this is a very flat rendering of the original which is literally And they feared with a great fear; the RSV is better with and they were filled with fear; while the AV And they were sore afraid is old-fashioned but familiar and expressive.
10. Do not be afraid is again flatter and less urgent than Fear not! I am bringing you good news: better, I announce to you good news; the verb, which is related the the noun evangelion, Gospel, has a sense of preaching and proclaiming. (Browning’s poem ‘How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’ might be considered in defense of ‘bringing’, but that is not about the announcing of the news as much as the swift journey.)
11. born today: Finally the hope of Isaiah 9.6 is fulfilled. God’s salvation is not in some distant future but is inaugurated now, today. This is a theme throughout the Gospel; see 4.21, 5.26, 12.28, 13.32, 33, 19.5, 6, 22.34, 61. A Saviour: Jesus, not Caesar Augustus. who is the Messiah, the Lord, literally, who is Christ Lord; Christ being the Greek for Messiah, the anointed one. This is the only time that these titles appear in the NT without the definite article.
12. The sign. The sign was in the conjunction of circumstances, a new-born babe, in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.
13. The heavenly host, the Greek means ‘army’, which was also the original meaning of the English ‘host’; its wider sense of ‘a large number’ seems to date only from the early 17th century. A multitude of God’s army appear; this is by no means all.
14. Glory to God in the highest. This song of praised was used in the hymn Glory be to God on high which was originally only sung at the Christmas mass. And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased. This difference from the traditional and peace on earth, goodwill towards men depends on the erading of the Greek text. Since Brown’s note on this phrase takes almost two pages, I may be forgiven for not going into it here.
The remainder of the passage is sufficiently clear as not to need a detailed commentary.
The First Day of Christmas
Sunday 26 The First Sunday after Christmas Day
The Second Day of Christmas . The feast of St Stephen is transferred to December 30.
Monday 27 St John, Apostle and Evangelist
The Third Day of Christmas
Tuesday 28 The Holy Innocents
The Fourth Day of Christmas
Wednesday 29: Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1170
The Fifth Day of Christmas
Thursday 30: St Stephen the Martyr
The Sixth Day of Christmas
Friday 31: John West, Missionary in the Red River District
The Seventh Day of Christmas
Saturday 1 January AD 2011: The Naming of Jesus. New Year’s Day
The Eighth Day of Christmas