Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 31 December 2017
and New Year’s Eve

The Naming and Circumcision of Christ … a stained-glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday [31 December 2017] is the last day of the year, New Year’s Eve and the First Sunday of Christmas.

As we ring out the old and ring in the new, Sunday and Monday are days to recall old memories, look forward to new beginnings, renew relationships, seek closures and set out on new ventures.

In the Church Calendar, this is not the end of the Church Year – the Church Year begins with Advent. Instead, Sunday’s Gospel reading recalls another beginning with the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for the First Sunday of Christmas in Year B are: Isaiah 61: 10 to 62: 3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4: 4-7; and Luke 2: 22-40 or Luke 2: 15-21.

There is a link to these readings here.

This link includes the full passage in Saint Luke’s Gospel, in which the two Gospel options follow one after another.

This posting looks at Sunday’s readings, with ideas for reflections and sermons. In addition, the Liturgical Resources for the Christmas, including the Collect, Kyries, Peace, Preface, Post-Communion Prayer and Blessing, and suggestions for appropriate.

There are ideas here too for marking the end of the year, drawing on the Methodist ‘Covenant’ tradition.

The images are all available for use on parish service sheets and notices, which should name Patrick Comerford as the photographer.

Clearing up some confusion about the readings:

But first let me tackle some questions that may arise from the confusion about the Gospel reading on Sunday morning. If you have RCL lectionaries on the lectern in your church, then – depending on the edition – it may bring you to the first choice of Gospel reading (Luke 2: 22-40) and not the second choice (Luke 2: 15-21).

However, both the table of readings in the Book of Common Prayer (Church of Ireland, 2004, p 29) and the 2017 and 2018 editions of the Church of Ireland Directory provide only for the second option.

This confusion is added to when you realise that this is same Gospel reading for the following day [Monday 1 January 2018, the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus], and the same Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Christmas next year in Year C [30 January 2018].

To make matters more complicated, the Book of Common Prayer, says the ‘Readings for The Epiphany may be preferred.’

This morning’s notes cover the two RCL options from Saint Luke’s Gospel, Luke 2: 15-21 and Luke 2: 22-40, understanding that many of us may be depending on readers finding their way through the lectionary on the lectern, and many of us may also be using resource books that provide commentaries on Luke 2: 22-40 alone.

The reading Luke 2: 22-40 is also suggested for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple [2 February]. This falls on a Friday in 2018, and the Book of Common Prayer (p. 31) suggests the Readings of the Presentation may be used on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany ‘if this is the nearest Sunday to 2 February.’

The Church of Ireland Directory 2018 offers the readings of the Presentation as an alternative on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [28 January 2018], although the nearest Sunday to 2 February is going to be 4 February.


The competition may be stiff next Sunday morning. Many people may feel they have had their share of church-going through Advent and Christmas, and may be thinking twice about getting up in time for a church service on Sunday morning.

Indeed, the label ‘Low Sunday’ given to the first Sunday after Easter could apply equally to the first Sunday after Christmas.

In addition, many people will have planned parties to mark New Year’s Eve on Sunday night, and so will have little intention of getting up early on Sunday morning. Others may know that the best place to be on Sunday night is going to be spending a night at home, safely tucked away from the crowds and drunk drivers.

So, how are we going to be both imaginative and relevant next Sunday morning in our use of the Lectionary readings and the available liturgical resources?

Isaiah 61: 10 to 62: 3:

This reading is from the part of the Book of Isaiah often known as Third Isaiah (Chapters 55-66). It was written when many young people had been forced into exile in Babylon. They were making their home in an alien land, struggling to maintain their customs and memories, and longing for their ancestral home. In all this, they continued to hope.

This reading shows God as both the one who has fashioned the ‘garments of salvation’ and the gardener who has planted for ‘righteousness and praise.’ It is a passage about transformation with the writer eagerly anticipating what is to come, salvation, hope, and the fulfilment of God’s promise.

The writer looks backward and forward: back to Israel’s history with God, and forward to salvation in Christ. It speaks clearly at the turning of the year, celebrating God’s desire to be with God’s people in a new way. It is a promise of reconciliation and steadfast love, a promise of hope.

Psalm 148:

Psalm 148 is the appointed psalm for this Sunday in all three cycles of the lectionary readings. While the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel readings change each year, the Psalm remains the same, remains constant.

Whatever our experiences of the old year have been, whatever our expectations of the new year may be, the praise God remains our shared, common, constant call.

In this Psalm, all creation praises God and gives thanks for God’s promises of saving grace.

Galatians 4: 4-7:

This passage is often known as ‘the theological centre’ of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. He shares the good news that God has sent his son to save us from slavery and to adopt us as his children.

Over and over again, we have probably heard throughout Christmas the old adage that Christmas is about children. In the aftermath of the Christmas celebrations, it is worth noting that for Saint Paul Christmas means that we are no longer slaves but the children of God and the heirs of God.

This reading on the last day of the year is a reminder, as we look back and look forward, that the reality of God’s love embraces our past and our future, and will not let us go in the present.

Luke 2: 15-21:

‘In my beginning is my end ...In my end is my beginning’ ... a sign for the old year and the new year in Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Festival of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus marks three events:

1, firstly, the naming of the Christ Child;

2, secondly, the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham ‘and his children for ever,’ thus Christ’s keeping of the Law;

3, thirdly, traditionally the first shedding of Christ’s blood.

The most significant of these events in the Gospels is the name itself. The name Jesus means ‘Yahweh saves’ and so is linked to the question asked by Moses of God: ‘What is your name?’ ‘I am who I am,’ was the reply, thus the significance of Christ’s words: ‘Before Abraham was, I am,’ or the ‘I AM’ sayings in the Fourth Gospel.

In this Gospel reading, Saint Luke recalls the Circumcision and Naming of Christ in a short, terse summary account in one, single verse: ‘After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb’ (Luke 2: 21).

As a feast, it has been observed in the Church since at least the sixth century, and the circumcision of Christ has been a common subject in Christian art since the 10th century. A popular 14th century work, the Golden Legend, explains the Circumcision as the first time the Blood of Christ is shed, and thus the beginning of the process of the redemption, and a demonstration too that Christ is fully human.

Saint Luke does not say where the Christ Child was circumcised, although artists – Rembrandt in particular –often place the ritual in the Temple, linking the Circumcision and the Presentation, so that Christ’s suffering begins and ends in Jerusalem.

In this story, we are the beginning of redemption, the beginning of the New Covenant, the beginning of the New Year. As TS Eliot opens and closes ‘East Coker’:

In my beginning is my end
... In my end is my beginning

Luke 2: 22-40:

‘Candlemas 2012’ (York Minster) by Susan Hufton … Simeon’s ‘Nunc Dimittis’ in a painting at a recent exhibition on the Bible, ‘Holy Writ,’ in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At first reading, this may seem to be a simple story about the thankful piety of the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph bringing their firstborn to the Temple for dedication, where they are met by the patient piety of the priest Simeon and the prophet Anna.

But this reading says a great deal more than this. The Christ Child is to become the fulfilment of the hope of the priests (the Law) and the prophets. This reading links the Incarnation with the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Christmas with Good Friday and Easter.

The Christ Child who is brought to the Temple in dedication, is the Christ who later visits the Temple in the days before his crucifixion. The sacrifice of the doves hints at the future sacrifice of Christ.

There is poetic quality to the contrast between the young parents, Mary and Joseph, and the elderly couple in the Temple, Simeon and later Anna. Once again, we are challenged to think about the meaning of beginnings and endings.

We may concentrate on the small picture, the simple image of this poor family arriving in humility at the Temple.

However, it takes the old and blind Simeon to see the big picture. It is not that the parents have come to purify the child or themselves, but that Christ has come to purify the world.

The old man takes the little infant in his arms, and finds he is holding the promise of the world in his hands. Towards the end of his life, new life comes to vindicate his life lived in hope and in faith. Hope is not the sole preserve of the young.

The words Simeon speaks are not easy, and remind us that that the Incarnation is without meaning without the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

In Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (verses 29-32), we have beginning and ending, welcome and departure, falling and rising.

In the end, the family returns home to Nazareth – Saint Luke has no flight into Egypt – as an ordinary family going back to their ordinary family life. The time of expectancy has come to end. The time of God’s salvation is now here, in our ordinary lives.

Another creative idea:

John Wesley’s Covenant is traditionally used by Methodists on New Year’s Eve

Limerick’s ‘New Year’s Eve Extravaganza’ promises to be a tremendous treat as dramatic illuminations are projected onto King John’s Castle, followed by a spectacular fireworks display, when the skies of Limerick will transform into an explosion of colour.

Families and people gathering in Limerick City for New Year’s Eve celebrations are promised ‘a dazzling end to 2017.’ There will be musical entertainment from 8.30 pm while the walls of the King John’s Castle come alive with a specially commissioned video projection to animate the façade of the castle, turning it into a giant tapestry.

The illuminations at King John’s Castle are being staged thanks to collaboration between Shannon Heritage and the Limerick School of Art and Design LIT, with grant funding and support from Limerick City and County Council. The times are: 8.30 pm: Music and Dramatic Illuminations on King John’s Castle; 9 p.m.: Spectacular Fireworks Display. Viewing Points: Clancy's Strand and Sarsfield Bridge.

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day is a good time to look back and forward with eyes of faith in company with one another and with God. The beginning of redemption, the beginning of the New Covenant, the beginning of the New Year ... once again, as TS Eliot opens and closes ‘East Coker’:

In my beginning is my end
...In my end is my beginning

In our Gospel reading on this Sunday, the Child Jesus becomes a Child of the Covenant. In the Epistle reading, we are reminded that in Christ each of becomes a Child of the Covenant.

Methodists have a long tradition of making and renewing their covenant with God at the New Year. John Wesley’s ‘Covenant Prayer’ prayer is normally said by Methodists at New Year’s Eve services.

A modern version of this prayer prays:

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Use me as you choose;
rank me alongside whoever you chose;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
raised up for you or brought down low for you.

Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
With my whole heart I freely choose to yield
all things to your ordering and approval.

So now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you art mine, and I am yours.
So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

Liturgical resources:


Almighty God,
who wonderfully created us in your own image
and yet more wonderfully restored us
through your Son Jesus Christ:
Grant that, as he came to share in our humanity,
so we may share the life of his divinity;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and his name shall be called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 6)


You have given Jesus Christ your only Son
to be born of the Virgin Mary,
and through him you have given us power
to become the children of God:

Post Communion Prayer:

Heavenly Father,
you have refreshed us with this heavenly sacrament.
As your Son came to live among us,
grant us grace to live our lives,
united in love and obedience,
as those who long to live with him in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one
all things earthly and heavenly,
fill you with his joy and peace:

I also found this blessing in Common Order (the Church of Scotland):

May the joy of the angels,
The humility of the shepherds,
And the peace of the Christ-Child
Be God’s gift to you and to all people
This Christmas and always.
And the blessing of God Almighty,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Be with you now and for evermore. Amen.

Suggested Hymns:

These are among the hymns suggested for the First Sunday of Christmas in Year B in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling:

Isaiah 61: 10 to 62: 3:

218, And can it be that I should gain
418, Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face
39, For the fruits of his creation
671, Jesus, thy blood and righteousness
638, O for a heart to praise my God

Psalm 148:

682, All created things, bless the Lord
24, All creatures of our God and King
683, All people that on earth do dwell
350, For the beauty of the earth
711, All you heavens, bless the Lord (Surrexit Christus)
705, New songs of celebration render
708, O praise ye the Lord! Praise him in the height
366, Praise, my soul, the King of heaven
709, Praise the Lord! You heavens, adore him

Galatians 4: 4-7

558, Abba Father, let me be
119, Come, thou long–expected Jesus
241, Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle (verses 1, 2, 5)
185, Virgin–born, we bow before thee

Luke 2: 15-21:

250, All hail the power of Jesu’s name
151, Child in the manger
152, Come and join the celebration
92, How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
163, Infant holy, infant lowly
94, In the name of Jesus
98, Jesus! Name of wondrous love!
99, Jesus, the name high over all
170, Love came down at Christmas
102, Name of all majesty
174, O little town of Bethlehem
179, See amid the winter’s snow
180, Shepherds came, their praises bringing (omit verse 2)
182, Silent night, holy night

Covenant hymns:

104, O for a thousand tongues to sing
247, When I survey the wondrous cross
537, O God, our help in ages past
601, Teach me, my God and King
604, We turn to Christ anew
605, Will you come and follow me
606, As the deer pants for the water
636, May the mind of Christ my saviour

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