Singing the Nativity Story
This service of song draws upon both classic hymns and newly written congregational songs with the Nativity of Christ as the central focus. More specifically, the newly written Nativity songs included here are drawn from two songwriting workshops sponsored by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in 2018. Songwriters from a variety of musical and ecclesial traditions came together to take a fresh look at the texts of Matthew and Luke and some well-known and little-known hymn texts by John Wesley with the goal of refreshing the church’s Christmas hymnody. As we conducted these workshops, we discovered the idea that Christmas itself carries so much cultural and historical baggage that it might be better to speak in terms of “Nativity songs” rather than “Christmas songs.” The church doesn’t sing about the cross only in Lent or about the resurrection only in Eastertide, so why must we limit songs about the Nativity and Incarnation to Advent and Christmas? Of course, we’ve designed this service with an Advent/Christmas seasonal setting in mind, but we suggest that you play with this idea of “Nativity songs” in your own context and see how it might rearrange your conception of what songs and themes are appropriate at different times throughout the year.
Note: The spoken words included here can be thought of as suggestions to capture the liturgical and thematic flow of the selected Nativity narratives and the congregational songs used in this service. These words can be expanded or edited as worship leaders see fit, according to context.
Opening Song: “O Come, All Ye Faithful” Wade, LUYH 76, GtG 133, PsH 340
We gather together to worship God and to ponder anew the mystery of the Nativity, the birth of Jesus. Jesus himself spoke of God’s kingdom as being like a tiny mustard seed that unexpectedly grows into a tree in which the birds of the air can make their nests. In a similar way, Jesus’ birth itself demonstrates the surprising way our God comes to save us and restore us: not in an overwhelming display of power, but rather in humility and weakness. How can this be? No matter how many times we hear this story, it is difficult to comprehend. Our goal, however, is not to master this story, but rather to enter this mystery and allow it to master us. So as we sing and pray together and read of Christ’s Nativity, let us pray now for God to open our hearts and minds to the wonder of it all and to send us out with a fresh sense of what this means for those of us who are called in Jesus’ name.
All glory to you, great God,
for the gift of your Son,
light in darkness and hope of the world,
whom you sent to save us.
With singing angels
let us praise your name
and tell the earth his story,
that all may believe, rejoice, and bow down,
acknowledging your love
through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
—Adapted from Book of Common Worship, 2018 edition. © 2018 Westminster John Knox Press. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Reader 1: Luke 2:1–7
Song: “Away in a Manger” North American, LUYH 86, GtG 114/115, PsH 348/349
Reading 2: Luke 2:8–14
Reader 2: And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them,
Reader 3: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Reader 1: Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
Readers 1,2,3: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Reading 3: Matthew 2:1–15
Reader 1: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked,
Reader 2: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Reader 1: When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
Reader 3: “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Reader 1: Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
Reader 2: “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
Reader 1: After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.
Reader 4: “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
Reader 1: So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Prayer of Confession
Almighty God who inhabits eternity
but dwells with those who are of a humble and contrite spirit:
before you and our Lord Jesus Christ
we confess our sins.
We have ignored the presence of your Spirit.
We have failed to look for the return
of our Savior and Judge.
We have been blind to your coming,
and to all of the ways that our sin has caused others pain
and has hardened our hearts toward the hungry, the exiled, the destitute, the sick, and the imprisoned.
In your great goodness
put away our offenses
and cleanse us from our sin, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
—The Worship Sourcebook, Second Edition; E.2.2.7 (adapted). Christmas liturgy, Church of the Servant, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission.
Reader 1: Colossians 1:15–20
Song: “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” Wesley, LUYH 80, GtG 119, PsH 345
Prayer of Gratitude
With joy we praise you, gracious God,
for you have created heaven and earth,
made us in your image, and kept covenant with us—
even when we fell into sin.
We give you thanks for Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who came among us as the Word made flesh
to show us your glory, full of grace and truth.
Therefore we join our voices
with all the saints and angels and the whole creation
to proclaim the glory of your name.
—The Worship Sourcebook, Second Edition; E.184.108.40.206. Agenda for Synod 1994. © 1994, Christian Reformed Church in North America. Used by permission.
“Oh, The King Has Come” Kim, Sung, Scheer
(Leadsheet at right.)
“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” Prudentius, LUYH 78, GtG 108, PsH 342
“And we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
And now may God, who sent his angels
to proclaim the glory of the Savior’s birth,
fill you with joy at his coming
and make you heralds of this good news. Amen.
—From Book of Occasional Services © Church Pension Fund. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY.
Song of Sending: “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” Spiritual, LUYH 93, GtG 136, PsH 356