I adapted the words of Clement Moore about eighteen years ago as part of our Christmas Eve service. There is such great hope in the Christmas narrative – God piercing the darkness, the Highest appearing to the lowly, ‘kings’ and shepherds praising the savior’s birth. This year has been extremely challenging for most of us and my thoughts and prayers continue to be with all those who will be spending Christmas separated from loved ones. May the reality of Christ’s birth fill you with unspeakable delight.
‘Twas the night of our Christ’s birth and throughout the hill
Not a sheep was there grazing, the lambs were all still.
The rams and ewes were resting now through with their play
Their shearing and roaming were done for the day.
Equipped with my staff, at my feet lay a rod,
And watching the flock I took a seat on the sod.
When all of a sudden there was no trace of the night,
I was brought to my feet by an incredible light.
When what, in the brilliance of God, should appear?
But one of His angels with a voice, loud and clear.
“Fear not,” were the words this messenger said –
But I knew at that moment I was filled with such dread.
The herald continued, “I bring good news
That will be for all people, both Gentiles and Jews.
“For today he is born. In David’s own town
A Savior, the Christ, the Lord may be found.
“As a sign unto you,” the angel then said,
“He lies in a manger where hay makes his bed.”
Then suddenly there were with this angel a horde
An army from heaven all praising the Lord.
The air was now filled with the song of His birth.
“Glory to God and peace on the earth”
When done with their worship they drew up in the sky.
In a flash, they departed, in the blink of an eye.
The shepherds then pondered “What should we do?
Let’s travel to town to see if it’s true.”
So, taking our flock we went on our way
In search of a child asleep on the hay.
In the city, we found near an inn overcrowded
The child of promise which the angels had shouted.
We shepherds then shared with the young and the old
All of the wonder we’d seen and been told.
We left there proclaiming, as we walked out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all because the Christ came tonight”.
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
Each year at Christmastime, I lead the church in the observance of Advent. The term ‘Advent’ was adopted from Latin adventus which means ‘coming or arrival’ and it refers to the season of anticipation before the arrival of Christ, which, for our church, takes place the four Sundays before Christmas. Through our observance of Advent, we are, as a community of faith, encouraged to demonstrate and appreciate the characteristics of Christian expectancy – hope, peace, joy, and love. It is for this reason that we have been lighting candles and offering prayers since the last Sunday of November and will continue to do so through this weekend.
This year especially, I have been thinking about Advent and contemplating the arrival of what has been promised from a particularly secular perspective: I have been thinking about Advent every time I track a package. Because of the pandemic, most of my Christmas shopping has been on-line and, because of this, I am regularly checking my Amazon app and entering tracking numbers on the websites of UPS, USPS, and FedEx. Some days I am filled with elation as I see the progress of my purchases and other days I am filled with exasperation as I consider contacting customer service.
Many times, I am not in the most healthy of places. As trucks go up and down the street, I watch from the window (like a kid with a quarter waiting for the Ice Cream Man), wondering if they will stop and, if they do, will they have something for me. As the weeks turn into days before Christmas, I find that I am worrying more and more about the 3 Ds – delay, damage, or delivery to the wrong address. I have become so preoccupied with my expectations that I risk missing out on the blessings of what is to come.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6 (NIV84)
This is why I need Advent. The words of Isaiah quoted above were written more than six centuries before the birth of Jesus. Imagine the tracking information on Isaiah’s laptop: “Expected delivery – March 7, 2638, before 9 PM”. The trouble with me is that I want things done on my time schedule; the gift of Advent is that it reminds us that all things are done on God’s perfect time schedule. Jesus arrived just when He was expected. Jesus will return just when He is expected. For that reason, we can have hope, peace, joy, and love today.
I will continue to check on the progress of my packages, confident that they will arrive when the time is right for them to arrive. I have hope that they will be before Christmas, but even if they are late, as I reckon time, they will still get here. I have peace in knowing that they are on their way or will be soon. I have joy in the anticipation, which may or may not be resolved on December 25. I have love in my heart for those receiving these packages and those carrying them to their eventual destination.
May God bless you in this season of arrival.
I am writing this post while sitting next to our Christmas tree. Typically, our tree is our final act of decorating – when the kids were younger, we did not want little hands tearing off ornaments; now that the kids are older, we did not want to visit the tree lot until everyone was home – but COVID has changed all that with tree shortages and on-line classes. Will the tree dry out and drop its needles as it occupies the Living Room for more than three weeks? It is likely, but for now, I will enjoy its familiar fragrance and its meaningful memories.
As I look at the tree, my eyes first focus on the ornaments. A few of them are pieces of foam or felt fashioned by tiny fingers, taking me back to a time when my children were a bit smaller and their wonder of Christmas was a bit larger. Most of them are commercially produced, whether they are a reflection of a “1st Christmas” (my grown or growing children all wanting their own to be placed highest and centermost) or a reminder of the year we purchased them. There is an ornament from Jeanine’s college days and there will be an ornament, I am sure, from this season of life. Each one serves as a mnemonic device of our time together.
Behind the ornaments are the lights, red and yellow and green and blue twinkles that are just bright enough to illuminate their immediate surroundings. Alone, these bulbs are insignificant, but putting 500 or so together casts enough light to give the room a certain glow. Unlike the ornaments, the beauty and significance of the lights are not in their individual meaning but in their collective impact: at night, just as we are retiring to bed, Jeanine and I sit by the tree, with only its light filling the room, and remark at ‘how lovely are your branches’. It serves as a mnemonic device of our beauty together.
Finally, there is gold garland that, literally and figuratively, ties all the aspects of the tree together. Wrapped around this fragile, living (and dying) evergreen is a cord of shimmering splendor. It makes this ordinary plant something special. I do not typically think about the garland, which I usually regard as a finishing afterthought to my tree decorating, but today I am in a mood to recognize its significance. I consider the garland a glimpse of Christ within the Christmas tree – a touch of royalty surrounding the rustic. This cord envelopes the earthly with the eternal and the ordinary with the extravagant. It serves as a mnemonic device of Jesus, fully human and fully divine.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
I appreciate the tree beside me because it reminds me of God’s blessings, God’s community, and God’s presence. Whether real or artificial – or not even a tree – I pray that there is something near you, as well, that jogs your memory of the goodness of God this Christmas.
Can you feel the change in the air and, more specifically, on the air? Yesterday may have been Thanksgiving, but today is the beginning of the Christmas season. Overnight we went from enjoying the autumnal comforts of pumpkin spices and falling leaves to enjoying the winter delights of peppermint swirls and drifting snow. Yesterday may have been spent watching competing teams play football, but tonight we will be watching competing networks broadcast ‘specials’ featuring Frosty and Burgermeister Meisterburger. This weekend we will witness Christmas lights begin to twinkle on our front lawns and Christmas trees being set in front windows. I hope not to alarm you, but Christmas Day is exactly four weeks away.
But this year is different, isn’t it? Because of the travel and gathering restrictions many of us face, there will be much smaller lines at the big box stores this “Black Friday” and much longer shipping times from the online retailers this month. There will also be fewer ‘cookie swaps’ and Christmas parties (although “Secret Santa” gifts may be as simple as visiting Amazon). That may allow us the serendipitous blessing of more time to spend with those closest to us and more opportunity to stream our season’s greetings than in Christmases past. We will have to be creative, but we can still make this the most wonderful time of the year.
Besides, sometimes the crowds around us keep us from appreciating the gift of Christmas before us. We, too, are sometimes distracted by all the hubbub of the holidays to see the truth as it approaches. We are sometimes the “Inn Crowd”, the huddle of humanity in the Bethlehem of our day, too busy or too burdened to recognize the gift of God about to be given. We are sometimes guilty of misguided priorities and pointing the Savior to the stall in the back. The “desire of every nation” has been delivered to our doorstep, and we are in danger of dismissing him due to the distractions of the day.
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. Revelation 3:20
But this year is different, isn’t it? The crowds have socially distanced and we have settled for a celebration in isolation. In the stillness of this strange and strained setting, can you hear the knock on the door of your heart? In spite of all the changes that COVID has brought (or maybe because of them), this year may be the perfect time to get out of the inn and away from all the revelry and travel back to the stable – to hear the shepherds and see the child, to marvel at his radiance and muse about the shepherds’ report. Do whatever you need to do to prepare yourself for the blessed arrival of God’s greatest gift: listen to a Christmas Carol playlist on Spotify, stream an Advent service on YouTube (might I suggest Calvary’s?), or watch “The Bishop’s Wife” on Amazon Prime. This Christmas may be the best chance our generation has to worship the newborn king together.
I pray that we all are enveloped by the enormous love we encounter at Christmas.
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.