Jesus Blesses Us with His Name and Saves Us with His Blood
Our newborn God keeps the Law for us and brings Abraham’s promises to their fulfillment when He is circumcised. It is there that the Name above all names is “bestowed on Him” (Phil. 2:9), “the Name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb”: Jesus, “the Lord saves” (Luke 2:21, Holy Gospel). He sheds the first drops of His precious blood in accordance with this Name and in anticipation of His cross, “for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The law’s captivity gives way to the freedom of faith in Christ Jesus, who cuts a new covenant in His blood to be received by faith, whether male or female, Jew or Greek (Gal. 3:23–28, Second Lesson). His Name is given to us in Holy Baptism, and we are made sons of God and “heirs according to promise,” true offspring of Abraham by faith (Gal. 3:29). Eight days after the celebration of our Lord’s birth, a new “Year of our Lord” is begun in Jesus’ holy Name and with His benediction. Jesus is the Lord, and by this Name we are blessed (Num. 6:22–27, First Lesson).
On the cover are objects that connect closely to today’s celebration of the circumcision and naming of Jesus. A knife, embedded with jewels and engraved with the sign of the cross is a reminder of the act of circumcision that took place eight days after the birth of Jesus. This knife is not an ordinary knife, but ceremonial in nature, indicating that this rite isn’t just some ordinary action taking place. For a male Israelite, this act would not only place him under the obligations of the Law, but would also entitle him to the covenant promise of God to send a Savior. So the same is true of Christ. This act is not merely symbolic. Through his circumcision he places himself under the Law of God, and declares, through the first shedding of his blood, that he is the promised Savior from sin.
Also adorning the cover is a Hebrew word (read right-to-left): “Yeshua.” It is the Old Testament name “Joshua,” which means “he saves.” This name was common in Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth. It would not have turned any heads at the Temple that morning. However, as the angel Gabriel reminded Joseph, this small child “would save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). What an appropriate name given to a baby who already, through his perfect obedience to the Law (of being circumcised on the eighth day), would indeed save us all from our sins!
In the beginning God created all things through His Word, His Son. But man fell into sin, and with man all creation was cursed. Therefore, God spoke His Word again, this time into the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary. The glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle of our human nature (Ex. 40:17–21, 34–38, First Lesson). “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1–14, Holy Gospel). The Son of God took on our flesh and blood and died on the cross in order that we might receive the right to become the children of God through faith. Baptized into Christ’s body, we are made partakers of a new Genesis, “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4–7, Second Lesson). In Christ, the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man has truly appeared.
Historically the Festival of Christmas has been truly celebrated on Christmas Day (as we will do tomorrow morning). However, throughout the history of the Church, the Festival of Christmas, like the festival of Easter, has been celebrated with a vigil. The word “vigil” is derived from a Latin word meaning, “watchfulness.” Our English word “vigilant,” is another derivative of this word. Throughout the season of Advent, we were encouraged to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ and to keep watch—that is, to be vigilant in preparing for the coming of Christ. Tonight, we see the culmination of the Advent season as we “keep watch” for Christmas Day.
In modern times, vigils have been used to commemorate or observe an important or tragic event or the death of a notable or significant person. They are usually celebrated in a muted and calm way, and often involve the use of candles.
In the Christian Church vigils have been used in very much the same way. However, the focus has always been and will always be on Christ. Traditionally the Christmas Vigil has been celebrated late in the evening so that the end of the service coincides with the changing from December 24th to December 25th at midnight. So, tonight, with Christians around the world, we gather once again at the Christmas Vigil, waiting and watching for the coming of Christ as a child in Bethlehem.
Our worship this evening is an adaptation of The Festival of Lessons and Carols service traditionally held at King's College, Cambridge, England, on December 24th every year. The Festival was first held on Christmas Eve, 1918. It was planned by Eric Milner-White, who at the age of thirty-four had just been appointed Dean of King’s College after experience as an army chaplain. A revision of the Order of Service was made in 1919, involving rearrangement of the lessons. While almost every year some carols have been changed and some new ones introduced by successive organists, the backbone of the service—the lessons and the prayers—have remained virtually unchanged for nearly 100 years.
John the Baptizer Points Everyone to the Messiah
The coming of God in all His unveiled power at Mount Sinai was terrifying to the people of Israel. The thundering voice of the Lord puts sinners in fear of death (Deut. 18:15–19, First Lesson). God, therefore, raised up a prophet like Moses—the Messiah, the Christ. God came to His people veiled in human flesh. The skies poured down the Righteous One from heaven; the earth opened her womb and brought forth Salvation (Introit) through the blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of the Lord. The fruit of her womb is the very Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the One whose sandal strap John was not worthy to loose (John 1:19–28, Holy Gospel). In Jesus we are delivered from fear and anxiety. In Him alone we have the peace of God which surpasses all understanding (Phil. 4:4–7, Second Lesson).
The voice of the Baptizer cried out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord…” (Isa. 40:1). John called the people to be made ready for the Messiah’s coming through repentance, for “all flesh is grass” (Isa. 40:6). Now He asks from prison, “Are you the one who is to come…?” (Matt. 11:2). Jesus’ works bear witness that He is. The sick are made well; the dead are raised, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them. Their iniquity is pardoned; they have received from the Lord’s hand double forgiveness for all their sins. The “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1) still deliver Christ’s overflowing forgiveness to the poor in spirit, comforting God’s people with the word of the Gospel which stands forever. This Gospel produces rejoicing among all those who believe.
The Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete, which is the first Latin word of the Historic Introit assigned to this Sunday from Philippians 4. Gaudete means “rejoice” (Gaudete in Domino semper = “Rejoice in the Lord always”). In some parishes, including our own, a rose-colored candle is used in place of another blue or purple candle. This lighter tone is meant to “soften” the tone of repentance and preparation within the Advent season with a message of joy and expectation.
The day on which our Lord returns will be a “great and awesome day” (Mal. 4:5, First Lesson). For He will come in a cloud with great power and glory. To the wicked and the proud, it will be a Day of judgment that will “set them ablaze” (Mal. 4:1). The signs preceding this Day will bring them fear and fainting. But to those who believe, who fear the name of the Lord, this Day is one to look forward to and rejoice in: “. . . straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28, Gospel Lesson). Christ our Redeemer is coming; the Sun of Righteousness will bring healing in His wings. Let us, then, give attention to the words of the Lord, which do not pass away. Let us “through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures” (Rom. 15:4, Second Lesson) be strengthened in our hope by the Holy Spirit and watch diligently for Jesus’ coming. Then, by God’s grace, we shall escape all these things that will come to pass and stand before the Son of Man.
The Second Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Populus Zion, which are the first Latin words of the Historic Introit assigned to this Sunday. Populus Zion means “People of Zion” (Populus Zion, ecce Dominus veniet ad salvandas gentes = “People of Zion, behold the Lord shall come to save the nations”).
The new Church Year begins by focusing on the humble coming of our Lord. “Look, your King comes to you, humble, and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Mt. 21:5; Gospel Lesson). Even as He was born in a lowly manger, so Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a beast of burden. For He bears the sin of the world. He is the Son of David riding to His enthronement on the cross, where He shows Himself to be “The Lord Our Righteousness” (Jer. 23:5–6; First Lesson). Our Lord still comes in great humility to deliver His righteousness to us in the Word and Sacraments. Before receiving Christ’s body and blood, we also sing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matt. 21:9) And as we receive the Sacrament, we set our hearts on His return in glory, for “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11; Second Lesson).
The First Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Ad Te Levavi, which are the first Latin words of the Historic Introit assigned to this Sunday from Psalm 25. Ad Te Levavi means “to you, I have lifted up” (Ad te levavi animam meam Dominum = “to you, O Lord, I have lifted up my soul"). An Introit is a chanted or spoken psalm that traditionally followed the Confession and Absolution and preceded the Salutation (“The Lord be with you.”) that begins our Service of the Word (p. 7). Introit means “entrance,” and it was during this psalm that the pastor or priest and those involved in the service would “enter” the chancel and altar area.