Formations 12.03.2017: The Lights of Christmas

Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 1:26-33

One of my favorite parts of Christmas is the lights. We deck our houses with tiny electric lights. We drape lights on Christmas trees. We go to services on Christmas Eve where the light of dozens of handheld candles bathes the sanctuary in a warm, amber glow.

When I was young, I loved to sit in the dark in the living room on Christmas Eve just to look at the tree with its blinking lights. Now I’m fifty-four years old, and that is still an important part of my holiday ritual.

The lights of Christmas couldn’t come soon enough. In this darkest part of the year, I’m lucky to enjoy an hour of daylight after getting off work. It’s not hard to imagine our distant ancestors huddled together against the wintery gloom, wondering if the sunlight would ever return.

The lights of Christmas are a promise. It may seem dark now, they say, but there is coming a time when those who dwell in darkness will see a great light. Until then, maybe a little light will do.

As children we sang, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” When we give expression to the love of Christ that shines in us, we can make world a little bit better…and a little bit brighter.

Today’s text from Isaiah announces the coming of an heir of David whose rule would be marked by justice and darkness turning to light. Though perhaps originally penned with an ordinary Davidic king in mind, Christians have long taken this passage as a glimpse of the Messiah’s kingdom. As such, it reminds us of this Advent season, and the promise to Mary that she would become the mother of the Messiah.

His light continues to shine, even in the darkness. And the darkness cannot overcome it.

Discussion

• What “little lights” give you hope these days?
• How can we shine our light more brightly?
• What do you expect with regard to Jesus’ mission in the world?
• How do peace, justice, and righteousness figure into this mission?
• What light does Jesus bring into the darkness of our own lives?

Reference Shelf

The Annunciation

The term [annunciation] refers to the angel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and give birth to a child who would be called Son of God. This story is found only in Luke 1.26-38. Scholars have long debated whether this story is based on an older source, and to what extent the writer crafted or re-crafted this story. Luke’s account has general affinities with miraculous birth stories in the Hebrew Bible. Early Greek and Latin Christian writers, however, would highlight the most distinctive features of this story, namely Mary’s virginal status. This takes on theological significance in later Christian theology….

Perhaps the greatest influence of Luke’s annunciation account is its role in birthing the “Hail Mary” or Ave Maria prayer. Gabriel’s words in Luke 1.28, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you” via Jerome’s Latin translation create the opening words of “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” This is then coupled with Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary in Luke 1.42 (“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”). This prayer plays a central role within Catholic piety, most notably in the Rosary prayer method in which it is repeated in sets of ten for a total of 150 times. Several famous musicians have set the text of the Ave Maria to music, including the well-known version created by Charles Gounod in 1859 based on J. S. Bach’s C major Prelude. One is hard pressed to name a major composer before the twentieth century who has not worked with the Ave Maria text. The Angelus prayer, often associated with the ringing of church bells at 6 am, noon, and 6 pm, is also based on Luke’s annunciation text. The Christian feast or celebration of the Annunciation is observed on March 25, exactly nine months before Christmas.

Andy Reimer, “Annunciation,” Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture, ed. Mary Ann Beavis and Michael J. Gilmour (Sheffield UK: Sheffield Phoenix, 2012), 21–22.

Handel’s Messiah

The words of George Frederic Handel’s Messiah are relatively simple, quoting seven chapters of Isaiah (7, 9, 35, 40, 52, 53, and 60) as well as three other prophets, Psalms, Lamentations, and Job, and eight New Testament books. The libretto, based on the KJV Bible and the Anglican Prayer Book, was written by Charles Jennings and sent to Handel in 1741. Beginning with Isa 40:1-5 and verses from Haggai and Malachi, the music announces “Behold, a virgin shall conceive” from Isa 7:14, and responds with Isa 40:9 and 60:1-3, “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth…” before introducing Isa 9:2 (“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”) and 9:6 (“For unto us a child is born…”).

These two verses from Isa 9 make up the final chorus before Luke’s story of the shepherds abiding in the field is introduced. In this way, the darkness/light motif that begins with Isa 60 is carried through Isa 9:2 and straight into a story of shepherds in the dark, suddenly dazzled by the Lord’s glory shining round about them. Subsequently Isa 35:5-6 is sung (“eyes of the blind shall be opened”), and Messiah’s first part concludes with two other pastoral images: Isa 40:11 (“He shall feed his flock like a shepherd”) and Matt 11:28-30 (“Come unto Him, all ye that labor…”). Thematically, dramatically, and purposefully, the words and music join ancient prophetic words to the Christ story at a time when the orthodox interpretation of the prophets was being seriously challenged. Handel’s musical choices did not simply reflect traditional Christian beliefs, but by his artistry convincingly reinforced them.

John F. A. Sawyer, quoted in Patricia K. Tull, Isaiah 1–39, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2010) 199.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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