In the very first (1549) Book of Common Prayer, the gospel reading for Christmas Day was Luke 2:1-14. In the 1928 (US) Book of Common Prayer, this passage is assigned for the earlier of the two services — typically Christmas Eve — with John 1:1-14 for the later service.
Although the 2016 ACNA lectionary has a three year cycle — with separate readings for Years A,B,C — at Christmas it uses the same readings every year. It allows for three possible Christmas services — with different psalms and Isaiah readings at teach — but assigns Luke for Christmas I and II (nowadays afternoon and evening of Christmas Eve) and John for Christmas III (Christmas Day). In the RCL, there are three services and Luke 2:1-14 is assigned for the first.
Authorized Version (1611)
The 1549 BCP used the Tyndale translations of the Gospels, but the version most often used is from the King James Version (“Authorized Version” in England).
The initial verses of Luke 2 explain how it is that Mary and Joseph end up in Bethlehem, and end with Jesus being laid in the manger. The passage beginning with verse 8 — which explains the appearance of the angel to the shepherds — appears to have been the often quoted over the next 400 years.
In the KJV, Luke 2:8-14 reads:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (1700)
In 1700, Irish poet Nahum Tate (1652-1715) published a collection of sacred poems that included one derived from Luke 2: 8-14. Here is the version of the poem that appeared in Hymnal 1916:
While shepherds watched their flocks by night,Today, this hymn is most often sung to to Winchester Old, taken from a 1592 psalm book. Hymnal 1940 (13.1) includes all six verses, although 4 and 5 seem less often sung.
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.
"Fear not," said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind;
"Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.
"To you, in David's town, this day
Is born of David's line,
The Savior, who is Christ the Lord;
And this shall be the sign:
"The heavenly Babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
And in a manger laid."
Thus spake the seraph, and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God, who thus
Addressed their joyful song:
"All glory be to God on high
And on the earth be peace;
Good will henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease."
Handel’s Messiah (1741)
In 1712, the Lutheran Kapellmeister Georg Friedrich Händel to London. Thirty years later, in Dublin he premiered his most famous work, a sacred oratorio with a text taken straight from the Authorized Version.
Thanks to many years of singing and listening to the Messiah, I have memorized most of Luke 2:8-14 — skipping only verse 12 which Handle omits from his libretto:
14a. Recitative (Soprano): There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
14b. Accompagnato (Soprano): And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.
15. Recitative (Soprano): And the angel said unto them: "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."
16. Accompagnato (Soprano): And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying:
17. Chorus: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men."
This Emmy-winning animated special — based on the characters of the Peanuts comic strip — was a favorite of my childhood, and even more of for younger sister as it played in reruns every December. (I also am reminded of it every year when I listen to the Vince Guraldi Trio jazz score as part of my Christmas music playlist.)
Charlie Brown is struggling with the meaning of Christmas, while his younger friend — philosopher Linus van Pelt — tries to help him understand. In climatic scene at the school Christmas concert, a frustrated Charlie Brown asks “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
In response, Linus takes the stage and reads Luke 2:8-14 from the Authorized Version.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (2015)
Fast forward 50 years. The special is for many an iconic symbol of the Christmas season, both to watch on TV and to re-enact in children’s Christmas pageants. At the same time, America has become far less Christian than it was in the 1950s and early 1960s.
In 2015, the superintendent of a rural Kentucky school district forbade the local elementary school from re-enacting Linus' most famous monologue. Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) protested this censorship, and the Alliance Defending freedom (a nonprofit law firm focusing on religious liberty) tried to convince the district to change their position — but to no avail. Instead, the audience on their own chose to read the deleted passage.