By Elisabeth Hartwell*
RCL Reflection, Nativity of the Lord, Proper III
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December 24-25, 2022
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. -John 1:3b-4
Someone very wise once observed that Christmas and Easter are the two most challenging days of the Christian calendar on which to preach. To this I would likely also add Mother’s Day, but on the whole, I agree with this wise person’s assessment. For starters, there tends to be a different congregation present on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day than on a typical Sunday morning. Some of the most devoted congregants are away, while other congregants are making their twice-a-year appearance. Add to this, preachers are usually up against a whole constellation of other challenges –family commitments, seasonal stressors, and the inevitable ghosts of Christmases past.
And, I have to be honest … our Scripture from the Gospel of John does not make things easier. As stewards of the mysteries of God, what do we say about a passage that is so well-known and beloved, yet so deep and rich with meaning? What can we possibly add to John 1:1-14, which stands squarely at the very heart of what Christ’s birth means to us? The sermon we deliver does not need to explain, interpret, emphasize, or dissect. The sermon only needs to reflect the hope and glory that are captured in these 14 verses. We can be like John the Baptist, testifying to the light that is already among us. In like manner, we are to be the feet of the messenger “who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Isaiah 52:7).
Our tendency may be to memorialize these verses, looking at them as though they depict something from long ago. Perhaps our challenge is to bring them into this present moment. After all, John 1:1-14 is deeply incarnational, looking to Jesus as the light-giving, life-giving force who is in all things, around all things, and through all things. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we might ask how Jesus continues to bring light and life into being and how we, as his followers, can play a part in bearing him into our lives, communities, and world.
How does our belief in Jesus as the Word and the light of the world transform our lives? What does it look like in the here and now when the darkness does not overtake Christ’s light? How do we show Christ’s light to others through our care of fellow human beings and our care of creation? How do we embrace the incarnational light within us and become good stewards of this light?
Scottish pastor Roddy Hamilton captures the essence of Christ’s gift to us this Christmas, as he writes:
gather roundHamilton, Roddy. “John 3:16.”
I have a story to tell
of one who reached inside himself
and took a handful of love
like a pile of stardust
and said: this is for you
it is all you need
it is all you will ever need
there is enough here
to change the whole world
May we receive the stardust Jesus shares with us, trusting that it is enough to change the whole world. As we claim the incarnational presence of our Savior, may we testify to the light.
Congregations tend to be steeped in their own traditions on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so to weave the message of John 1:1-14 into the rest of the worship liturgy, consider how to use what is already in place. For example, you might include hymns that focus on the theme of light. In addition, if your congregation includes candle-lighting in its Christmas Eve service, when it comes time for everyone to put out their candles, you might say something like, “You are invited to extinguish your candles and carry the light of Christ within you.” By framing it this way, you will encourage your congregants to recognize the light of Christ they carry within themselves.
Invite youth to use their imaginations as they grasp the concept that Jesus is the light of the world. Ask them what would be missing if there was not light in the world: what would it be like to live in darkness all the time? In like manner, then invite them to imagine a word without Jesus: what would be missing if Jesus was not born on Christmas? What would be different about them as individuals? What would be different about our world? Imaging life without Jesus encourages us to recognize Jesus’ incarnational presence all around us, to realize that he continues to shine on as the light of the world.
Invite children to find a Christmas tree after the service ends (or, if there is a Christmas tree in your sanctuary, use that one). Experiment with turning the tree’s lights on and off. What difference does the light make? How does the lack of light change the tree’s appearance? Explain that the lights make the tree look extra special. Go on to share that this is what Christmas is all about: Jesus, the light of our world, is born. Just as the tree’s lights make it shine and sparkle, so Jesus is the light of our world that makes everything and everyone extra special.
*The Rev. Elisabeth Hartwell serves as pastor of Hiland Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Here are previous reflections for Nativity of the Lord:
2020 – Proper I – A very Covid Christmas: Room for Jesus
2011 – Proper I or II – The gift that keeps on giving
2010 – Proper I or II – Let us go now to Bethlehem
Photo: Frank Cone via Pexels.