Christmas is just a few days away, as you all are undoubtedly aware. If you’re a liturgical planner for your congregation, chances are the big decisions have already been made. If you’ve got family plans, chances are they’ve already been worked out. In either case, perhaps there are still last-minute details to sift through – isn’t that always the way?
But perhaps there is still some room to consider the rhythm of worship through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It is my preference, and the practice of this Customary, to start with a “maximalist” approach: assume that every option in the Prayer Book is to be used; individuals can then use that big picture to work out how it can be reduced and enacted in their own contexts.
Service #1: Evening Prayer on December 24th
Following ancient Jewish (as well as Christian liturgical) tradition, the holiday begins on the evening before. Christmas, therefore, begins with Evening Prayer. The ACNA lessons that evening are Song of Songs 1 and Luke 22:1-38. That Old Testament lesson is an interesting choice, for reading the love poems coinciding with Christmas lends an allegorical interpretive aid: as we celebrate the spousal love described in the Song, we also celebrate the divine love of God that led to his incarnation as one of us. The New Testament reading is just part of the sequential reading through Luke at the end of the year. The Collect for Christmas Eve is:
O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
This will be used at the following Communion service too.
Service #2: Evening Communion (or Vigil) on December 24th
Earlier drafts of our liturgy (I think following the style of the 1979 book) called this option Christmas Day I, but the most recent updates have gotten more specific: this is Christmas Eve with its own Collect and lessons. The Collect is shared above. The lessons are Isaiah 9:1-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-14(15-20). The parentheses refer to an optional lengthening of the reading. Just as the angels appeared to the shepherds at night, and the birth of Christ seemed to happen overnight, so we get the Bible’s primary nativity narrative in the evening, or vigil, service. Traditionally this would be a late-night service, after when Evening Prayer would normally be said, making it analogous in function to the Easter Vigil.
Service #3: Sunrise Communion on December 25th
Just as many churches have a sunrise service for Easter, the following collect and lessons are the Prayer Book’s option for a sunrise Christmas service. This may be an “impossible” idea for families with children, who want to rush to the tree first thing in the morning. But it’s worth noting that some traditions, particularly across the pond, left the Christmas day gift-opening festivities until after Christmas lunch or dinner, making an early morning service actually preferable. The lessons for this service are Isiah 62:6-12, Psalm 97, Titus 3:4-7, and Luke 2:(1-14)15-20. The Gospel is the same as the night before, basically for the same reason; but the the Old Testament & Psalm and Epistle lessons are different. There are so many excellent Old Testament lessons for Christmas, the variety is just worth celebrating. This Epistle (Titus 3) is found shortly after last night’s epistle (Titus 2), so there’s a sort of sequential logic to that as well. The Collect for this day is:
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.
Service #4: Morning Prayer
Now the duplications start coming in. The lessons at Morning Prayer are Isaiah 9:1-8 (the same as the Christmas Eve Communion service, plus a verse) and Revelation 17 (just part of the sequential reading of the month). It’s more than a little unfortunate that chapter 17 is one of the more unpleasant chapters in Revelation; we’re stuck reading about the Whore of Babylon on Christmas morning. I suppose you could redeem this unpleasant oversight with the observation that the precious baby Jesus came into the world precisely to deal with such evils. Still, not a very festive reading… oh well.
Service #5: the Principle Communion
By “principle” I mean “primary.” This is the one that best matches the historic Prayer Book lectionary, and therefore ought to be the one that a church uses if there’s only one Communion service on Christmas Day. The lessons are Isaiah 52:7-12, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-12, and John 1:1-18. You’ll note that the three Communion services (the night before the sunrise, and the principle) make use of sequential psalms: 96, 97, and 98. These are very festive psalms and lend themselves to celebrations of all sorts. The non-liturgical Christian today may be surprised at the choice of John 1 for the Christmas Gospel: what about the delightful nativity story of Jesus and his family in Bethlehem? The answer is theological. John 1 tells us of Jesus’ true origins; his eternal divine pre-existence with the Father. Hebrews 1 backs this up, and provides another observation of Christ’s incarnation in human history. Where the Vigil and the Sunrise services capture the drama of Christmas, this Principle service captures the substance of Christmas.
Service #6: Evening Prayer on December 25th
Christmas Day ends with Evening Prayer, where the lessons are to be Song of Songs 2 and Luke 2:1-14. This is another instance of duplication – we’ll already have heard this Gospel lesson at the Vigil and/or Sunrise Communion services. I guess this way, if you don’t make it to any Communion service and only say the Office at home, you’ll at least get the nativity story here.
Applying this to your personal or family context
Ultimately, a Customary cannot tell you how to “take the liturgy” home, exactly. Nor can I, as a writer, dole out universal advice on what works best for you. Families with children have one situation, empty-nesters have another. Some people travel and will be on the road at typical prayer times. Some people have lots of church services to go to and others will have none. You’ve got to work with the situation you’ve got.
In the case of my tiny congregation, all we’ve got is the Evening Prayer service on Christmas Eve. Knowing that we won’t be offering any Communion service to attend, I’ve planned for the New Testament lesson (Luke 22) to be changed to Luke 2:1-20. Song of Songs 1 will be staying.
As you look at how to handle your personal and/or family devotions, consider what your church will be celebrating together. Plan your worship at home in conjunction with the corporate liturgy, so that you can have as rich a celebration of Christmas as possible!
And yet, the liturgical context for celebrating Christmas is even bigger: there’s still the following Sunday to consider! But I’ll save that for another entry on another day. In the meantime, have a blessed final couple days of Advent.