See additional resources for a New Simple Christmas Eve Service for 2023, Lessons and Carols for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, along with A Spontaneous Nativity, the two-part dramatic dialogue What Can I Give? and a 12 Days of Christmas Calendar resource all on the Christmas Special Resources page.
I have included commentary on all the passages from previous years along with some liturgical pieces at the end.
Revised Common Lectionary:
The RCL gives three different readings, Proper I, II, or III, for Christmas Eve, Christmas Morning, or Christmas Day. “Proper” refers to the specific reading for Christmas Day, as opposed to the “Ordinary” or constant reading (referring to each day of the year), and comes from the Roman Catholic tradition. For most of Protestantism, this means we choose one set and follow it.
Proper 1: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
Proper 2: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2: (1-7), 14-20
Proper 3: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12); John 1:1-14
December 24: Birth of Jesus, Luke 2:1-14 (15-20) (Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:46-55)
December 25: Shepherd’s Visit, Luke 2:8-20 or Magi’s Visit, Matthew 2:1-12 (Psalm 108:1-4)
For Proper I, we begin with Isaiah 9:2-7. In this portion known as First Isaiah, the prophet finds hope in the newborn king Hezekiah in Judah, for a war-torn northern kingdom of Israel. God was making a way for the people out of tyranny and bloodshed. The vivid images of battle—the boots from soldiers, the blood-soaked clothes—will be burned. The northern tribes had been taken into exile by Assyria, but this new king in Judah was born, a child of the line of David, whose reign would bring peace.
Psalm 96 calls the congregation to sing their praises to God and to declare God’s glory among all the nations, for God created the earth and heavens. Other gods are mere idols—there is only one God. The psalmist calls the congregation into worship, to give God all the glory and honor and praise that God is worthy of, calling the people to enter the temple and bring their offering. The psalmist concludes by reminding the congregation that all of creation worships God, and that God is coming to judge with righteousness and equity.
Titus 2:11-14 speaks of God’s grace that has come upon us, teaching us to renounce the world’s passions and instead live Godly lives. God’s salvation has come upon all people, and we wait with hope for the appearance of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. This is one of the few passages that directly speaks of Jesus as God, who gave himself up for us, so that we might be redeemed and be a special people for Christ, eager to do good in the world.
The readings for Proper I conclude with Luke 2:1-14, the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, as the time came for Mary to give birth and she laid him a manger. The angel of the Lord appears to shepherds nearby, who are terrified at this sight of the messenger of God, and the heavenly host—the army of God—filling the night sky. Yet the angels share a message of Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace. Heaven and earth both are filled with peace and glory on this night, and the ones who know it are not the kings or emperors, but the shepherds. In 15-20, the shepherds find the babe as they were told, and go on to tell what they heard and saw, and Mary treasured what they said, pondering the message in her heart.
For Proper II, we begin in what is known as Third Isaiah with 62:6-12. The prophet is looking out for the people who have returned from exile. God is calling them to come through the gates, and vows to never again have their resources taken by their enemies—their food, their drink, their vineyards and grain will all be protected, because they are a holy people, and God has not abandoned them.
God’s power and might are shown through creation in Psalm 97. The whole earth trembles before God who reigns upon the throne of righteousness and justice. Those who worship idols are put to shame, because God is above all other gods, and the people of Israel rejoice because they worship God. The psalmist concludes by calling the righteous to rejoice, for God is with them.
In Titus 3:4-7, the writer speaks of God saving believers not through their actions, but because of God’s kindness, love, and mercy, in our renewal by the Holy Spirit through our baptism. Through Christ, we are heirs to the promise and have the hope of eternal life.
The readings for Proper II conclude with Luke 2: (1-7), 8-20. The first seven verses contain the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, as the time came for Mary to give birth and she laid him a manger. Verses 8-20 is more the primary focus, the visit of the angels to the shepherds, who in turn are the first witnesses beyond Mary and Joseph who know that for them a savior has been born, in the city of David, the city of the shepherd king. To the shepherds this is first made known; the shepherds are then the first to share this good news, “for all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them,” and later they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, as it had been told them.”
For Proper III, we start with Second Isaiah in 52:7-10, where God has sent a messenger to the exiles returning, proclaiming peace, good news, and salvation to the people, for their God reigns. The lookouts at the city receive the people returning, singing together as God brings the people home. The prophet calls even the ruins of the city to sing their praise for God, who has brought the exiles home in front of all the nations: a witness of God’s reign.
Psalm 98 calls for the people and all of creation to sing praise to God, through musical instruments and through the sound of nature. The people have experienced a victory against their enemies, and the occasion calls for the people to praise God, who is the judge of the world. The psalmist claims the victory as assurance of God’s approval and greatness.
Hebrews 1:1-4 writes of Jesus as God’s ultimate messenger. In the past, God spoke through the prophets and our ancestors of the faith, but in these final days, God spoke to us through the Son, the light of God’s glory, the one who is greater than all other messengers. Christ is the one who can purify us from sin and is superior to all angels. In 5-12, the writer continues to show that Christ is the only one to reign over the kingdom, or reign of heaven, that God has established. The angels are made to worship Christ, for Christ is not their equal. Christ was present as the foundations of the earth were laid and will reign forever.
The Gospel lesson concluding the readings for Proper III is John 1:1-14. This beautiful beginning to John’s gospel tells of the Word at the beginning, the Word made flesh that dwelled among us. Everything created came through the Word and without the Word not one thing was created. John was sent by God as a witness to the Word, testifying to the light, the Word whose glory we have seen as of a parent’s only child, full of grace and truth. I highly recommend reading Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney’s own translation of John 1:1-14 in A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, A Multi Gospel Single-Year Lectionary, Year W (pages 22-23), as Dr. Gafney uses the image of bleakness instead of darkness, so that darkness may not always be perceived as negative the way it often has in American context.
The Narrative Lectionary also uses Luke 2:8-20 as its Gospel text, focusing on the visit of the angels to the shepherds. They are the first witnesses beyond Mary and Joseph who know that for them a savior has been born, in the city of David, the city of the shepherd king. To the shepherds this is first made known, and the shepherds are the first to share this good news, “for all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them,” and later they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, as it had been told them.”
An alternative for the Narrative Lectionary is the Magi’s Visit of Matthew 2:1-12, which is also the reading on Epiphany. While sometimes this passage is included at Christmas with Luke’s story of the Nativity, and the magi are often included with shepherds and angels in our nativity creche’s, they are quite different stories. The magi, also known as astrologers, probably from Persia though it is uncertain where they came from, arrived in Jerusalem expecting to find a king there since that was where the royal palace was located. Instead have found Herod, a puppet king for Rome. The scribes look and find a passage in Micah 5:2 about a new king coming from Bethlehem, the city of David, to shepherd Israel. Micah was writing about Hezekiah, the new king of Judah in his time, who would prevent the Assyrian Empire from taking control of Judah. But here, the scribes have interpreted Micah to be about a Davidic king for their time. Herod sends the magi to go to Bethlehem, with the orders to return to Jerusalem and tell him where the new king is, so he can go visit him. The magi do go and find the child in Bethlehem with Mary his mother (Joseph is not mentioned at this point!). They pay him homage, offering him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. However, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod (as an angel warns Joseph in a dream right after this story about Herod’s intentions), and return home another way. Note that in verse 2, in most translations the magi ask, “Where has been born the king of the Jews?” Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney, in A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: A Multi Gospel Single-Year Lectionary, Year W in her translation on page 35 uses the term Judeans instead of Jews. This is a better translation because Herod was in charge of the Roman province of Judea, and it would make sense to be frightened of a new king of your province, rather than a new king of a people who are scattered throughout the Roman empire.
Psalm 108:1-4 is the beginning of a psalm calling the people into worship with a wake-up call to the soul. As the singer awakens the dawn, the singer calls out their praise to God among all the nations. God’s faithfulness is more vast than the light reaching the edges of the earth, higher than the skies and clouds.
Here are a collection of prayers and suggestions for services besides the ones listed on the Special Worship Resources page for Christmas:
Call to Worship (can be read or sung)
O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him!
O come let us adore him,
Christ the Lord!
O come and worship Jesus,
Who reigns in us forever,
O come and worship Jesus,
Christ the Lord!
Call to Worship
We wait to celebrate the birth of the Christ-child,
We wait for Christ to enter our lives in a new way.
We watch for the signs of God’s reign in our world
We are called to build up the reign of Christ on earth.
We wonder at God’s work in our world,
And wonder what God will do next,
We rejoice that God sent the only Son to us,
We rejoice in the birth of the Messiah!
What has come into being through Christ is life, and the life is the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. The light now lives in each of us. Go, share the Light of the World, for the Light of the World is Christ the Lord. Amen.
For Unto Us has been born a Savior, Christ the Lord. For Unto Us we have the promise of new life in Christ. For Unto Us we have the hope of salvation and the promise of new life. For Unto Us we are challenged to live and grow in new ways, to seek justice and to become peacemakers in the path of the Prince of Peace. For Unto Us a child has been born, a Son given to us, and authority rests on his shoulders. For Unto Us we follow the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace, Jesus the Christ, and we look to the world and to our future with hope. Amen.