Ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

Christmas, Mass at Dawn

Before the first reading:

When most of its citizens were dragged away in exile, Jerusalem, surrounding Mount Zion, became a nearly empty city. When the exile ended, the prophet describes God leading the people home. The city is to become a frequently visited destination for all the world.

After the psalm, before the second reading:

This reading describes the coming of Jesus as "the kindness and generous love of God," and describes our baptism as "the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit."

Before the gospel acclamation:

The shepherds in this gospel passage have heard a startling announcement by angels. They investigate, then spread the news.

First Reading, Isaiah 62:11-12

The Historical Situation: Around 600 B.C.E., the Babylonians took the Jews out of the promised land and kept them in exile (a.k.a. the Babylonian Captivity) for about 60 years. When Cyrus, a new emperor, took over Babylon, he sent the Jews home. This reading is set in that troubled period when Judah was trying to put itself back together after returning from Exile. Other parts of this section of Isaiah (chapters 56-66), tell us how slow and frustrating that project was. To get the flavor of it, imagine how American Southerners might have felt during Reconstruction, or a contemporary family might feel when they return to a fire-damaged home.

Daughter Zion means (the people of) the city Jerusalem. This was Judah's capital, in the center of which stands Mount Zion, where the Temple was. The gist of this short passage is that the people should keep up their spirits because they and their city will soon enjoy again prosperity and international renown. Thus "Frequented" means frequently visited, the opposite of a ghost town.

Proclaiming It: If you can find a quiet moment before the liturgy begins, survey the congregation. Think about people there, whom you may know or may not, who are dispirited, frustrated by the slow pace of restoration (in whatever sphere of life they may feel that frustration), and in need of encouragement. You might even find yourself among the discouraged. Then remember what Isaiah tried give to a similar group. Let Isaiah give it again through your proclamation.

Second Reading, Titus 3:4-7

The Theological Background: This passage is classic Pauline teaching about how God saves us by incorporating us into Christ. Inasmuch as Christ was born in time, this is the purpose, in precise theological terms, without sentimentality. And it's the real cause of Christian joy. It deserves a vigorous proclamation on Christmas morning, and meditation, perhaps in a less busy time of the year.

The Historical Situation: Among the congregation served by the early bishop Titus were Christians who believed they had to practice the laws of Judaism, and impose those laws on pagan converts to Christ. Paul reminds them that God saved us "not because of any righteous deeds we had done, but because of his mercy." In other words, those law-driven righteous deeds don't win our salvation, but God gives it freely. We accept that gift by taking the bath of rebirth, when the Spirit is richly poured out on us. This, not our observance of laws, makes us justified (right with God) and that give us the hope of eternal life.

Proclaiming It: So this passage has a polemical side, as does much of the letter to Titus. But you shouldn't be too polemical in tone. There might be some people in the assembly who think they're doing God a favor by coming to church on Christmas. They're wrong, of course, for the reasons given above. But it won't help to scold them. Rather, sound grateful, if you can, in your proclamation of God's love incarnate. Anyone who catches that in your voice will realize there's at least one better reason for being there.

Links to other smart commentaries on this week's readings

Credit for the picture at the top:

Postal services in many countries issue special stamps for the Christmas season. This is a 2014 stamp from the Principality of Monaco

Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.

This page updated November 28, 2015