During our services over the past four weeks of Advent, our church sang more than a dozen Christmas carols, those short and simple, memorable and meaningful songs of joy surrounding the birth of Jesus. But none of those carols have the depth and beauty to convey the truth and majesty of the first carol that fell upon the ears of those lowly shepherds watching their flocks by night. A great company of the heavenly host, a great army of God’s messengers, appeared before those humble workers and offered up words of praise. Their carol is compact – only 11 words in the original language – but each expression expands as we hear it.
The angels first proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest heaven….” Their initial expression was to give glory (e.g. weight, immensity, greatness, and ‘gravitas’) to the God of the Bible. These heavenly beings were witnesses to all of God’s great acts: they saw the earth’s creation, they saw the parting of the Red Sea, they silently watched as God blessed and provided all sorts of people throughout history. Yet, this time, for this action of the Lord, they broke into creation. They declare to the shepherds that the awe-inspiring brilliance of the tabernacle and the temple now resides in human flesh. This song of the angels now serves as a reminder to us that God’s glory is perfectly expressed through arrival of Jesus in Bethlehem.
The angels next proclaimed, “…and on earth peace….” From the time of the garden, there has been an absence of peace on earth – human existence on this side of the flaming swords of the seraphic guards includes enmity, violence, wickedness, warring and a continual lack of contentment. The angels now announce that reconciliation has come. But the birth of the Christ child is God’s provision for peace; an earthly peace, complete with satisfaction and safety; and a heavenly peace, with full forgiveness and reconciliation. The angels’ carol also serves as a reminder that this promised peace is now present upon the earth, even if we do not sense it.
Finally, the angels proclaimed, “…peace to those on whom his favor rests.” These messengers are now declaring that God’s grace, His unmerited and undeserved favor, is available to all people. This grace is not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, though. God is not excusing our sin; He is excising it. The angels are announcing that the means of restoration is revealed in Jesus. This centuries-old carol lastly serves as a reminder to us that God’s grace is available to all who come to the manger and bow before the King who sleeps on the hay.
That is what I pray we all will take away from our celebrations of Christmas, that the greatest news from God can be heard from the herald angels. Hear one last time the angels’ song:
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:13-14
Part of my preparations for celebrating Christmas this year is that I have been reading the novella A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. While I have seen the films and adaptations on television (my personal favorites are Mr.Magoo’s Christmas Carol and Scrooged), I had never read the relatively short story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the three visiting Spirits. On the page or on the screen, the plot is well-known: Scrooge is a successful business owner with great accumulated wealth who is inundated with charitable requests as Christmas approaches; as returns home on Christmas Eve, he is visited by the ghost of his business partner and then three Christmas Spirits; these Spirits show Scrooge his Christmases past, present and yet to come; these visions have a profound effect on his miserly and calloused heart.
We are all tempted to be a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge at Christmas. We also receive a barrage of demands for our time and our finances and our kindnesses to care for those with pressing needs. We might be inclined to think only of ourselves and not about our fellow man and woman. We might need to be reminded of what is more important than earthly gain. But where can we find three Spirits on such short notice?
There is another character in Dickens’ novella that serves as a contrast to Ebenezer Scrooge: Bob Cratchit. Cratchit is Scrooge’s clerk and he is all that Scrooge is not; despite his lack of material resources, he is generous and kind. Cratchit has his reasons for cynicism – a terrible boss, an insufficient income and a sick child – but he is continually focused on others. Cratchit is the one who goes to church and he is the one who prays for his heartless boss. He is the one who carries within himself the joy of Christmas despite having several reasons for the contrary. While Scrooge was the one who was converted to compassion, Cratchit was continually kind.
This being said, A Christmas Carol is more of a moral fable than a spiritual allegory. In Dickens’ tale, Christmas is the setting, not the story. None of us are as hardened as Scrooge and none of us are as virtuous as Cratchit. All of us can be more compassionate and all of us can share more joy. Instead of comparing ourselves to a archetypal fictional miser or milquetoast, we are better suited to reflect the character of real individuals.
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Luke 2:20 (NIV)
These shepherds were, in many ways, like Scrooge – driven by their vocation to sacrifice most relationships, they accumulated wealth and were ostracized by society. But one day they received a message from God and that transformed their hearts and lives. They were changed by the good news of great joy that a savior had been born, and after seeing the Christ child, returned to their workplace with gladness in their hearts. When they saw (when we see) the great gift we have been given, we shout, “Glorious” – how glorious is our God, His creation and His plan for each one of us to care for each one of us.
For the last 85 years, our culture’s holiday playlist has contained “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”. For the last 50 Christmases, we, as a society, been delighted by the Rankin/Bass stop-motion special inspired by the song’s lyrics and have come to love its additions; the irritations of Burgermeister Meisterburger, the commotion in Sombertown and the transformation of the Winter Warlock have become part of our seasonal heritage. We all can sing along – “He’s making a list, checking it twice; gonna find out who’s naughty or nice. Santa Claus is coming to town. He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake; he knows if you’ve been bad or good – so be good, for goodness sake.”
For the last few generations, we all have been told that Santa has made a list of who’s been “naughty” and who’s been “nice” (and untold numbers of parents have utilized the knowledge of this list to keep their children in line during the month of December). As Christmas approaches, we have had a musical reminder that Kris Kringle knows whether we’ve been good or bad and, by extension, he will bring gifts for the good boys and girls and coal for the bad. So, we do all we can to be good so that our names appear on the “nice” list.
For whatever reason – the close connection between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of Santa Claus or the compiling of lists of good and bad behavior or a benevolent mythical figure giving gifts – people are inclined to think of Father Christmas and God the Father in similar terms. Surely, we suppose, that the Almighty watches over us during our waking hours as well as through our slumber. Certainly, we expect, He keeps a list of names with all that we’ve done right and done wrong. It is likely, we surmise, that He blesses us for our goodness and supplies rocks to those who are bad. But God is not like Santa.
There is no difference … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Romans 3:22-24
God is making a list, and maybe He is checking it twice. He knows all are naughty and none are nice. He sees you when you are sleeping, and He knows when you’re awake. He knows that you’re not good but bad…but He gives us His greatest gift anyway. God does not keep us in line by threatening to remove His favor; He grants us His favor (grace) because we cannot stay in line. God loves us so much that He gave us the only gift that would satisfy our every longing – His presence among us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jesus didn’t come to earth because we were good, but because He is good. So good that He lists all those who trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior on His “nice” list, not because of what we’ve done, but because of what He’s done for us by sending us the gift of Christ.
It was the best of plans: I had wrapped my son’s birthday present (his first cell phone) and placed it with the others on the dining room table, and then I typed up a text to the family giving out his number but was waiting until the right moment push ‘send’. We proceeded with his party (the menu for our freshly minted 12 year-old’s festivities was Ring Dings and Wattamelon Roll), which we enjoyed before the opening of the gifts. As we were about to get on with the gift-giving, there was a muffled ring coming from the pile. It was the phone. Had I mistakenly sent out the text? (I quickly checked, and I had not.) It turns out a telemarketer had ruined our surprise, but in the process created an unexpectedly wonderful birthday memory.
“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” is a Yiddish proverb which means, “Man Plans, and God Laughs.” No matter how much we plan, life is messy and things often do not go as imagined. Josh’s birthday party made me think about Jesus’ birthday; the life his parents experienced was certainly not as planned. There was an unplanned pregnancy (from their perspective), a thwarted divorce, a rejected reservation, an unexpected visit (or two) from strangers and an unforeseen move. It was a year (or two) of chaos and confusion that neither Mary nor Joseph could have imagined. Yet, God was with them and was creating something unexpectedly wonderful.
If ever there was a time in human history when God orchestrated a course correction in the affairs of His creation, the birth of the Messiah was that time. God sent Gabriel to Mary to tell her, “Do not be afraid…” God sent an angel in a dream to Joseph to tell him, “Do not be afraid….”, and another (also in a dream) to tell him to travel to Egypt to protect his family. God sent angels to the shepherds to tell them, “Do not be afraid….” God warned the Magi, in a dream, to return home by another way so as to avoid Herod and protect the Lord.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV)
As I see it, we all have a choice to make when things do not seem to go as planned: we can scowl and think that all is ruined, or we can smile and thank God for His intercession. Our reaction when “things don’t go our way” reveals who we think is in charge of the details of our lives. Especially during this season, we need to face the facts that our plans may not go as expected: cookies will burn, airlines will have delays, products will be back-ordered, illnesses will invade our homes and sentimental ornaments will break. These things might be God’s way of correcting your course, adjusting your plans and preparing you for something unexpectedly wonderful.
“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht”. I hope you hear Him.
I have a simple question for all those reading this: when do we stop celebrating our “Season’s Greetings”? When the radio and television stations return to their regular programming? When the last Christmas cookies have been eaten? When the tree and decorations are taken down? When the final greeting card, initially misdirected by the Post Office, arrives? Until the next holiday is celebrated? Until the children return to school after their Winter Break? Once all the exterior lights have been boxed and stored away? I suppose we all must move on from all of those special gatherings with family and friends filled with all sorts of special traditions and resume the mundane schedule of everyday life, but when?
But what if I do not want to move on from Christmas? What if I still want to reflect on the gifts of advent – the hope, peace, joy and love that comes through the appearing of Christ? What if the remembrance of the 1st advent at Bethlehem, has whet my appetite for the 2nd advent when Christ shall descend from the clouds? While I can dispense with the carols and the cookies, I would like to retain the warmth of the manger, the worship of the shepherds, the hospitality of the city of David and the generosity of God, the Father.
When [the shepherds] had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child…. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Luke 2:17-20
I want to be like those shepherds, so impacted by the facts and sensations of Christmas that they were undeniably transformed. Because of the advent, these blue-collar laborers went from sheep herders shaking in fear to pastors leading lost sheep to verdant fields. They went back to their ordinary schedules with an understanding of the extraordinary sights and sounds of the Savior born in a Bethlehem manger. They were changed by Christmas, as is evidenced by their propensity for giving glory and praise to God. They had no special carols or cards or casseroles – they had the Christ and He was sufficient to sustain them.
I will, in the days ahead, put everything that symbolizes Christmas into boxes or, in the case of our tree, onto the curb – all the external stimuli that reminds me of that blessed event two thousand years ago. But, like the shepherds, I will continue to carry inside me all the sounds, scents and sights that make Christmas special. My hope is that the inward prompts of these sensational sensations will stimulate my soul to maintain a spirit of glory and praise every day in every place as I interact with everyone. Instead of celebrating Christmas throughout the year, perhaps I can communicate the hope, peace, joy and love of Immanuel – God with us – for a while longer.
Lord, help me to remember that on every day that ends with ‘y’ that Christ came to inaugurate “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
On Wednesday night, a group of us from the church walked down the hill to the Ashmont T station and sang carols for the commuters. While we were there, I could not help but notice that Ashmont station is a hub of activity. There were people using every form of transportation: cars, cabs, busses, trains, bicycles and walking. There was a steady stream of busy people, some rushing past our makeshift choir and others lingering for a moment but ultimately moving onto other matters. And there were so many noises: car alarms, public address announcements, stray musical sounds and digital voices from cell phone speakers.
Yet, in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, there we were, proclaiming the joy, hope, peace and love of the Savior and handing out candy canes to those who would take them. As Philips Brooks wrote 150 years ago, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light….” While the rest of the neighborhood was moving about, accomplishing the things of their “To Do” lists, we were being used by God to provide a gentle reminder of the reason we celebrate. Above the din of humanity, the soft sounds of the baby born in the manger, the angels and Magi who visited, and the good tidings for all people could be heard.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. Luke 2:1-4
Is our experience at the Ashmont T station a few nights ago what it was like in Bethlehem all those years ago? While it is unclear how many were living in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth (some scholars suggest as few as 300 or as many as 1,000), the biblical account of the events that occurred in Bethlehem are clear: so many people flooded this small village outside Jerusalem because of a governmentally decreed census that living space was at a premium. There were travelers, noises and activity aplenty and few, if any, stopped to notice the world changing couple that came to town. The urgency of the moment overwhelmed the importance of the advent, the appearing, of the Savior of humankind.
We, too, can get wrapped up in all that still needs doing that we overlook what has been done. We need to purchase gifts, wrap gifts, bake cookies, consume wassail, attend parties, visit family, connect with friends, worship on Christmas Eve, stuff stockings and settle down for a long winter’s nap. We can, like subway commuters and census participants, lose track of what is important as we engage in the things that are urgent. I pray that, in the midst of all the people, noise and activity of the next few days, you hear the angels’ song and delight in the birth of our Lord.
For many, the Christmas season means spending a great deal of time traveling: a dozen trips in the car battling the traffic to the mall, the annual airline flight to visit the grandparents, or the 10-hour bus ride home from college. Time on the road or waiting in a terminal is synonymous with celebrating Christmas. It makes sense, since travelling has always been a part of Jesus’ birth. I am thinking about a young couple named Mary and Joseph, who were required to travel roughly ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. To put it in perspective, it would be like walking from Dorchester to Hartford.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. Luke 2:1-3
Sometimes, we might think that the demands upon us to travel are beyond our control and we chafe at the expectation. That may have been how Mary and Joseph felt. Caesar Augustus thought he had a good idea in counting everyone in his realm and raise taxes to increase his kingdom. Because he was the dictator of the entire Rome world, he could do anything he wanted. So they went, on foot, despite the fact that Mary was ‘heavy laden with child’. God had a plan for them, and God often has a plan for us.
Sometimes, we might think that the destination of our travel plans are outside our comfort zone. That could have been how Joseph and Mary felt as they awkwardly advanced toward Bethlehem together. It was an uncomfortable situation: they were pledged to be married but had yet to have the ceremony when it was obvious that they were expecting. Mary was in an uncomfortable condition: can you imagine walking 15 miles a day for 6 days while 9 months pregnant? God was guiding their every step, and God is also guiding ours.
God may be leading us to places out of our control and beyond our comfort because there are people in those places that need the hope, the joy and the love that appeared in its fulness for the first time in Bethlehem. There are people in parking lots and registers who need a smile and a warm greeting. There are people frustrated by missed connections or missing luggage that could benefit from an act of kindness and a candy cane. The roads and airways are filled with inconsiderate and self-centered travelers; perhaps God could use you to offer those around you common courtesy and Christmas cheer.
Wherever God has you travelling this month, whether it be across the room, across the street or across the country, know that God has a purpose in your journey – to bring forth a witness to God’s grace, mercy and love to those who may not experience it otherwise. We could choose to follow Mary and Joseph’s example and remain faithful to God wherever He may lead us. We could choose to share the delight of knowing the light that shines in the darkness, the hope of nations, the King of Kings and the prince of peace.
May we go wherever we go with gladness and may the gifts arrive unbroken.
As much as I try to maintain the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ (through the images I choose to reflect on Christmas cards and wrapping paper, the musical selections of carols in the midst of secular songs and our participation in Advent), one trapping of the ‘holiday’ season that I cannot seem to eliminate is the Christmas stocking. I recognize the secular source of these socks hung over the hearth – I have seen the documentary “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, which cogently gives the history of the holiday hosiery as a means of Kris Kringle avoiding the mandates of the mean-spirited Burgermeister Meisterburger so that the children of Sombertown could receive ‘outlawed’ toys.
There is another possible origin story involving the real Saint Nicholas. It seems that there was a once wealthy nobleman who had three daughters. This nobleman fell upon hard times and could not afford a dowry to enable his girls to be married. This inability to accept proposals filled the family with shame. Nicholas heard of this man’s misfortune and, having riches from an inheritance, secretly gave the young women bags of gold, throwing them inside the house through an open window. One of these bags made its way into a stocking. As religious and pious as the story sounds, it is as dubious and as unlikely as the imaginative plotline of stop-motion animators Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass.
Whatever the source, stockings have always been a tradition in my family. We are (okay, it is probably more me than anyone else) peculiar in our practice of ‘stuffing’: the trinkets are never wrapped or labeled (everyone knows they are filled by Santa), there is always at least one toy (since that is what Santa brings from his workshop) and there is always at least one piece of fruit (it is anyone’s guess why). The stocking is the first thing that is ‘opened’. While it may contain small, inexpensive and ordinary items, it is an important part of our family’s Christmas.
The stocking is a sort of microcosm for the nativity. In both, there are a number of ordinary things grouped together to make a whole that is so much greater than the parts. There is the humility of Mary, the righteousness of Joseph and the simplicity of the shepherds. There is a single star, a meager manger and some common cloth. The ‘real’ gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – arrived days (if not weeks) later. Yet, when combined, they amount to so much more than a simple, albeit rustic, arrival of a first-born child. It becomes the greatest gift the world has ever received.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
My hope and prayer for you this Christmas is that you will see the glory of the one and only Son. Whether your stockings are hung by the chimney with care (in hopes that St. Nicholas soon will be there) or you enjoy some other Christmas tradition, may the ordinary aspects of your celebration accumulate to much more than you can imagine.
Last week, I was intrigued by the following tweet:
My wife and I regularly, when their birthdays come around, share with our children the events of the day they came into the world. The details of each birth had certain peculiarities – the smell of chocolate chip cookies, the speed (or the slowness) of the labor, the lateness of the hour, the travelling to the hospital as snow was falling at rush hour. I remember quite a bit about those four days, but a mother’s recollection is even greater. I can only imagine that Mary’s memory was no different and she must have recounted the birth of her first-born child on occasion.
“Dad and I had to go to Bethlehem just before you were born. We were there with a bunch of distant relatives, mom and dad’s cousins and their children, sort of like a big family reunion. There were so many people there! When we got there, there were no rooms left in the inn for us, but your dad found us a small cave where some animals were kept, and we sat in there so that I could rest for a bit. When the time came, you arrived, right in front of some goats and a cow. You were so small, so beautiful. We counted your little toes and your little fingers, and we were so happy that you had ten of each.
“You and I fell asleep for a bit, you in a feeding trough on some hay and me lying next to you. Your dad handed me a scarf, the one I had been wearing on my head, and we wrapped you up in it to keep you warm. One thing that was special about that night was that a little after you were born we had some visitors – shepherds from the fields nearby. Daddy woke me up and the first thing I saw was the nose of one of their sheep. They told your dad and I a wonderful thing about you: they said that angels came to them, in a blinding light, and told them that you had been born and that they could find you in that manger. They were so happy to see you. I think they told everyone in the entire town that you were born.
“Speaking of visitors, a little while later, while you were still itty-bitty, we were at a friend’s house when men from the east came to see you. They brought you special gifts – frankincense, myrrh and GOLD! You kept looking at the sparkles on the wall that the gold was making. They also knew you were a special baby, my little king. They told us that saw a star in the sky and spent months following it…right to you! Just like your dad and I, they knew you were God’s greatest blessing.”
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Luke 2:19
Mind you, this narrative is mostly speculation. The place (a manger in Bethlehem) and the people (shepherds and stargazers) were recorded in Scriptures. It might have happened this way. We cannot imagine all the things that Mary pondered, but I can imagine she shared some of it with Jesus – even though He probably knew more of the story than she did. As you catch view of the nativity scenes that populate mantels and town greens, let your imagination soar as you, too, ponder the birth of Christ the Lord.
For those of you living in Boston, today you will experience the earliest sunset of the year (4:11:38pm). This is both good news and bad news, since the length of your daylight will continue to decrease until December 20. Astronomically, we could say that these are dark days: for the next month, we will experience nearly 15 hours of ‘night’. Metaphorically, we can also say that these are dark days: everyday, through every media source, we witness incidences marked by a lack of direction, a lack of warmth or a lack of morality.
The Bible has much to say about darkness. It was the penultimate plague that was inflicted upon Egypt (Exodus 10:21). It is the dwelling place of God, as witnessed by Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20:11), by Solomon in the temple (1 Kings 8:12) and through the psalmist (Psalm 97:2). It was what overshadowed the cross of Christ for three hours during His crucifixion. It is the place of chaos (Genesis 1:2), temptation (Ephesians 5:11), ignorance (Matthew 6:23) and death (Job 10:21). It is the place of sinful desires (John 3:19) and the place without light (Acts 2:20) – lifeless, cold and confusing.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. Isaiah 9:2
It seems that every day another man in authority is accused of harassment or abuse. It seems that every week there is another account of mass violence. The fact is that every moment is filled with an immoral act (a lie, a theft, an assault or an infidelity) somewhere in the world. There is no shortage of crimes suitable for the local and national news outlets, and those reported on at 6 and 11 are just the tip of the iceberg of what Robert Burns wrote as “man’s inhumanity to man”. We are people walking in darkness, shivering and stumbling in sin.
But in that darkness a light has dawned. This is not the flicker of a candle or a 100-watt lightbulb; it is more than the flashlight on your smartphone or a lighthouse on the coast. It is a great light, like the sun; it is the light of the world, which the Gospel of John tells us is the light of life. This light is Jesus, who has entered the darkness and overcome it. He is the source of life, purpose and power. He has destroyed the secrecy of temptation, the strangeness of confusion and the sting of death. Because of Christmas, the light has overwhelmed the darkness.
I hope that you delight in all the lights of Christmas – those on the trees, in candleholders, woven into sweaters, at church, on lawns and in the sky – and rejoice that the light of the world, the great light, has come into our world and has illumined our darkness. Perhaps this truth will enable us all to focus on the joy of this light and, perhaps, seek the goodwill of all those who walk with us during these dark days.