Christmas Day – December 25

The Word

Psalm 97

The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness are all around him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.

Fire goes before him, and consumes his adversaries on every side.
His lightnings light up the world; the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
before the Lord of all the earth.
The heavens proclaim his righteousness;
and all the peoples behold his glory.
All worshipers of images are put to shame,
those who make their boast in worthless idols;
all gods bow down before him.
Zion hears and is glad, and the towns of Judah rejoice,
because of your judgments, O God.

For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods.
The Lord loves those who hate evil;
he guards the lives of his faithful;
he rescues them from the hand of the wicked.
Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.
Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous,
and give thanks to his holy name!


“Flüelen, from the Lake of Lucerne,” 1845, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund.

Like the psalmist, we often think and speak of the immensity of God. God is the almighty force that controls wind and sea. The heavens and the whole earth “proclaim God’s righteousness.” God is king, a powerful conqueror and ruler who protects God’s people. Though we live centuries after the reign of King David, we are not so different from people then. We want a human leader who has a strong presence — someone who is physically fit, a military strategist, a strong communicator, a skilled debater, financially savvy, and more. So it is not surprising that we often focus on the immensity of God, the power of God, the awe-inspiring reign of God. Nor is it surprising that when the people of God found themselves without a leader or ruler, they began looking to passages like this as predictions of the Messiah. A Messiah who would be victorious in battle, a ruler who would seek justice, a conqueror who would restore Israel to its former glory.

I am always struck by the contrast between the festivities of the Christmas season, both sacred and secular, and the night of Christ’s birth as I imagine it. Of course there are likely some similarities — we experience the haste of preparing for company or getting kids dressed to attend a Christmas Eve service; they experienced the haste of finding a place for Mary to give birth as she cried out in labor pains. But now, we spend much of our time and energy on large and loud celebrations at Christmastime, whereas the first Christmas was a small, intimate moment surrounded by darkness and silence, broken only by the cries of mother and baby.

No one expected this Messiah.

The Messiah, born in a stable, swaddled, and laid in a manger.
God incarnate, in the form of a helpless babe.
The Messiah, crying out to be fed and changed.
God incarnate, not in great strength and power, but in the small, vulnerable form of an infant.

This Messiah was not a king, as we define it.
God incarnate was a poor man with no political power.
This Messiah brought no military victories.
God incarnate broke bread with sinners and healed with a gentle touch.

For the past two years, we have all grieved the loss of large gatherings and boisterous celebrations. But we have also found a blessing in the midst of much grief — the ability to slow down and embrace the small, intimate moments that happen upon us. Maybe we can continue to reframe how we approach the Christmas season as we hopefully return to gatherings in the coming years — appreciating the quiet moments and the little joys as much as the celebrations. We can reframe what kind of king we desire, seeking not powerful persuaders, but gentle and compassionate leaders. We can reframe how we think of God, who approaches us not only in awe-inspiring immensity, but also in small, intimate ways. Let the earth rejoice!


On Christmas Day – arr. Henry Balcombe (1983-2012)

After four full weeks of Advent preparations, the great festival of Christmas has come once again! The organ music for today is that of unbridled joy – “Joy to the World” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

“Go Tell It On the Mountain” was a slave song in the African-American community from the 19th century. John Wesley Work Jr. is famous for transcribing and compiling this and many slave songs and thereby making them accessible to a wide audience. He was employed by the Fisk University as professor of Latin and history 1904. Afterwards he was appointed to direct the Fisk Jubilee Singers and expertly led that group for years both on campus and in tours around the county. His fine work brought songs of the enslaved African-American community to white audiences around the country. In our current hymnal, this song is found as Hymn 136.

“Joy to the World” is an English Christmas carol written in 1719 by the English minister and hymnwriter Isaac Watts. The carol is based on a Christian interpretation of Psalm 98, Psalm 96 (verses 11 and 12), and chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis (verses 17 and 18). Since the 20th century, “Joy to the World” has been the most-published Christmas hymn in North America.

The pairing of these two treasured carols in this organ composition provides us a chance to reflect on the Joy of the Birth of Christ and our response to that joy from two very different musical traditions.