A. Merril Smoak Jr. says we must reclaim the power of the public reading of Scripture.
“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree.”
If you think about it, the phrase “the first day of Christmas” suggests that there must be a second or third day of Christmas and maybe even more days of Christmas. As worship planners we should think of Christmas as a season of several days that begins on Christmas Eve and ends sometime before New Year’s Day.
Modern-day consumerism promotes Christmas as a gift-giving season that begins in early November and concludes with the day after Christmas sales. Historically, Christmas Day is a specific date each year to celebrate the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. Theologically, Christmas teaches us about the incarnation, God Himself becoming human flesh to redeem His creation. Early Western church tradition has Christmas beginning on Dec. 25 and concluding on Jan. 5 – the 12 days of Christmas (begin your counting with Dec. 25). Jan. 6 is Epiphany, the day to celebrate the coming of the magi as recorded in Matthew 2.
For worship leaders, the Christmas season has always demanded our best worship planning. It is a joyous time of Christ-centered celebration. As our society and culture continue to secularize this Christian holiday, we must intensify our December worship plans. For most of us, this will include special worship plans for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day when it falls on a Sunday, and the Sunday after Christmas.
Christmas Eve worship
Christmas Eve worship is prime time to simply tell the nativity story and sing familiar Christmas carols in a setting of awe and mystery. During the past 24 days most churches have elaborately rehearsed the Christmas traditions through children’s musicals, Christmas pageants, singing Christmas trees, and even live drive-through nativity scenes. The importance of these performances should not be underestimated. But after the December Christmas rush, maybe we need Christmas Eve worship that is quiet and serene to once again remind us of God’s love that came through the Child of Bethlehem.
Simply tell the birth story through Scripture reading. Let one child read the Matthew account and another child read the Luke account. Ask a grandfather to read these Bible stories while sitting in a rocking chair with the children from the congregation seated on the floor around him. Visually enhance the Scripture reading with a nativity scene on a table on the stage, or have several nativity sets displayed around the worship space.
The reading of the Christmas story may seem too simplistic after our Christmas musicals and pageants, but we must reclaim the power of the public reading of Scripture. Paul reminded Timothy to “give attention to the public reading of scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13, NASB). When we publicly read these familiar Scripture verses, we remind our Christmas Eve worshipers that they are a part of God’s story of creation, incarnation, and re-creation. Robert Webber reminds us that we must live in God’s story, not the world’s story: “In the incarnation, God unites with our humanity in Jesus Christ … Reflection on the incarnation and its connection to every aspect of God’s story is the missing link in today’s theological reflection and worship.”
The singing of traditional Christmas carols is another way for individuals to embrace the Christmas narrative on Christmas Eve. Adults must not grow weary of singing these classic carols. These words and melodies must be passed on to our children and grandchildren. Think about it. Do you want your children and grandchildren to think that the only Christmas songs are “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”? You must sing the Christmas carols for them and with them. Through singing these carols, the details and theology of the Bethlehem birth become a part of our thinking and our lifestyle.