First Sunday of Christmas — December 31, 2023

Philip Gladden looks at the connection between Christmas and Easter laid out in Luke 2 and Galatians 4.

Luke 2:22-40 and Galatians 4:4-7
Year B

“Happy Easter!” Harry chimed.

“Thanks, Harry,” I replied to the church elder. “Easter is my favorite day of the year.” We had recently completed our sunrise service and church members were now sharing a breakfast.

Harry immediately responded, “Christmas is my favorite day of the year. If we didn’t have Christmas, we wouldn’t have Easter!”

“True, but if we didn’t have Easter, Christmas wouldn’t matter.”

“I suppose you’re right, but Christmas is still my favorite!”

This anecdote is a good illustration of the interplay between the second reading from Galatians 4 and the Gospel reading from Luke 2 on this first Sunday of Christmas. Although Paul’s words predate Luke’s chronicles by 30-35 years, it’s as if he were writing a theological commentary on Luke’s story about Jesus being presented by his parents in the Temple according to God’s law and being recognized by faithful Simeon and Anna as the long-awaited redemption of Israel.

We are still celebrating Christmas, even if many people have quickly moved on and may be more focused on New Year’s Eve celebrations. Nevertheless, this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, especially the testimonies of Simeon and Anna, echoes Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 and the angel’s message to the shepherds in Luke 2:10-12. The week-old baby is recognized for who he is and what he will do: “Your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples … destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:30-31, 34).

The incarnation at Christmas, recognized and celebrated a week later in the Temple by two faithful servants of God, portends the salvation to be revealed and brought about in Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. Or, as Paul writes in Galatians in one of his rare references to events in Jesus’s life other than his death and resurrection, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law” (Galatians 4:4-5a).

Almost all commentators highlight Luke’s emphasis on the law of God in his story about  Jesus being presented in the Temple. Joseph and Mary are portrayed as faithful Jewish parents who, after fulfilling their civic duties by registering in Bethlehem, make the journey to Jerusalem to do everything “according to the law of Moses/the law of the Lord.” They encounter righteous and devout Simeon who was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25) and Anna the prophet who “never left the Temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37).

In the first six verses of today’s Gospel lesson, Luke tells us four times that everything done that day “was customary under the law” (Luke 2:27). And, as if we needed a reminder, Luke wraps up his story with the notation that “When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth” (Luke 2:39).

Why this emphasis on doing everything according to the law of God? As Jesus later encountered the animosity of the religious authorities because of his teachings about God’s law, we remember that he was shaped from birth by the example and teachings of his parents. He was no outsider criticizing the practices of the religious leaders of his day. Indeed, he was the embodiment of all to which the law of God pointed, “your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:31-32).

On this first Sunday of Christmas, just a week after the congregation has heard “the good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10), the apostle Paul’s words in Galatians 4:4-5, combining the Christmas and Easter messages if you will, are all the more powerful. In his New Testament commentary on Galatians, John Calvin wrote, “By putting the chains on himself, [God in the form of Jesus] takes them off the other.”

On the first Sunday of Christmas, folks may still be basking in the glow of the Christmas Eve service. However, on New Year’s Eve, many people will also be taking stock of the past year, looking ahead to the new year, and making resolutions. As hopeful as we might be with a fresh start, we know that the coming year will inevitably bring disappointment and failure, despite our very best efforts to make things right. As we look back and look ahead and consider what it means to be children of God, Luke and Paul help us look back to the incarnation and ahead to the death and resurrection of Jesus, all of which give us our ultimate hope and salvation. It’s true, without Christmas we wouldn’t have Easter, and without Easter Christmas wouldn’t matter. Thank God we have both!

Questions for reflection

  1. How can you help the congregation with the promise and joy of Christmas on December 31 when Christmas is “over” for many people after Christmas Day?
  2. How can worship on New Year’s Eve offer the congregation a glimpse of how God is always at work, past, present, and future?
  3. As we think about and make New Year’s resolutions, what does it mean to be and how are we to live as children of God and heirs through God?

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