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.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” Luke 2:8 (NIV)
Of all the people involved in the Christmas narrative, I find myself identifying most with the shepherds. While I am not a rugged outdoorsman with an extensive knowledge of ovine behavior, there are a few touchpoints with their lives that intrigue me. These men, and perhaps women, were hard working – braving the weather of ancient Palestine, warding off the dangers that surrounded them, satisfying the needs of those placed in their care – and strong willed. They were likely underappreciated by those around them (performing a necessary task but smelling like the livestock) and underestimated in their hometowns (battling the assumptions that they were simple-minded and poorly groomed). They were the “little people” that most of us pass by unnoticed.
But that all changed when God interrupted their lives. According to Luke, these shepherds were living out in the fields with their sheep, taking care of business, when suddenly a messenger of God appeared in the nighttime sky. Many others, before and since, have a similar experience; they were living their lives, doing their best, when suddenly, God breaks through the “business as usual” with His spectacular presence. Praise God that the shepherds realized what was happening and responded with reverence. They listened and believed. Interestingly, at least on this occasion, God didn’t interrupt the prayers of the temple or the plans of the king; He announced the miraculous to the common man.
What happened to that common man, what happened to those shepherds, is equally astounding. Those who lived out in the fields and smelled like the sheep they tended became the spokespeople for God. After seeing the child, just the way he was promised, they began telling those around them the good news – that the Savior has been born and the promised one has arrived. The Bible says that the people who heard the shepherds’ story were amazed, perhaps by the message and perhaps by the messengers. God broke through into the lives of ordinary people and allowed them to do something extraordinary.
The wonderful truth connected with the shepherds at Christmas is that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. The one who shattered the darkness near Bethlehem with His brilliant glory is still doing the same thing today. He is still sending messengers to ordinary people, announcing the arrival of Christ the Lord. I know this because He broke into my life with His glorious light, albeit not with literal brilliance. I was happily seeking out an ordinary life after being raised in an ordinary household. In one moment, I changed from an unremarkable banker to a reflection of Him. It wasn’t when I first trusted Him or when I was baptized, but rather when I saw and heard the truth and know I couldn’t keep it to myself.
My story led me to become a youth leader and a pastor, but I could have, like those shepherds of long ago, returned to my field with praise and glory to God. No matter where life finds us, we are all surrounded by God’s glory; we simply need to recognize it. Especially at Christmas, embrace the enchantment of the Nativity. Let those songs in the background become a beacon for Him. Allow those lights on the tree serve as a taste of the light of the Lord. And when God breaks through, listen.
My wife, Jeanine, has been spending the last 10 days with family in Baltimore. In her absence, I have come to realize all the details of life that need to be tended to in order for the house to run smoothly: the alarm clock needs to be heeded, lest the children are late for school; the calendar needs to be checked daily, lest we miss out on an important event; laundry, cleaning and showers need to be regularly performed, lest we begin to reek. I am blessed that a number of women from the church provided ample meals for us to enjoy and that the boys – ages 22, 16 and 9 – were able to care for one another when necessary. That being said, I am so glad that Jeanine is coming home tomorrow.
These last ten days have given me a new appreciation for single parents, especially at Christmas. I have the privilege of knowing that soon my better half will return and help with the meals, the mornings and the mess – many don’t have such reinforcements coming. There are single moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas and aunts or uncles that must balance work and home, shopping for Christmas trees and paying electric bills, checking homework and Christmas lists. They must do it all, with little or no help. My heart goes out to those who “go it alone”.
Many of us are blessed with what our culture calls a ‘support system”. Some find support through family and others find it through friends; some support comes through the church and some comes through agencies. Our support systems are what carries us when we cannot seem to manage alone. These are the people who come into our lives who, sometimes publicly and some anonymously, and encourage or console, equip or supply us in our time of need. I praise God for all those who support those I love and I pray God gives strength to those who have inadequate support.
It seems to me that Mary and Joseph could have used a support system. They were called to go through so much alone: angels visited each of them solitarily, telling them that God would enable them to endure great challenges; they were forced by the government to travel miles from home at the time of their child’s birth and were met with indifference when arriving to Bethlehem; soon after delivering the promised child, they were commanded to leave everything and move to a foreign country; and eventually Mary is forced to “go it alone” after the passing of her husband some time after Jesus turned twelve.
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Luke 2:19
As we celebrate Christmas, enjoying time with family and friends, remember those who have little or no support system. Talk to the single mother you know from work and offer to watch the kids so she can finish her shopping. Text that single dad you know from school pick-up and encourage him to keep up the good work. Drop by the house of the single grandmother in your neighborhood and deliver a gift card for the local fast food restaurant. Support those who have no support; give them something wonderful to ponder this Christmas.
We all enjoy a ‘guilty pleasure’ or two during the holidays. For some of us, it has to do with baked goods; we cannot resist the buttery, sugary Christmas cookies. For others of us, it has to do with questionable music choices; we are delighted when “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “Dominick the Donkey” plays on the radio. There are also those whose fashion choices are the issue; we find enjoyment in wearing gaudy and garish ‘ugly’ sweaters, complete with sequins and blinking lights. One of my guilty pleasures is a stop-motion Christmas special produced by Rankin and Bass, “The Year Without a Santa Claus”.
Don’t get me wrong, I like all the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. As a pastor, I enjoy the reference to Jesus’ birth in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and the extra-biblical tales told through “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Nestor, the Long-eared Donkey”. But despite its completely secular storyline, I love “The Year without a Santa Claus”. I love Mother Nature (with her birdhouse dwelling in the sky) and her boys, Heat Miser and Snow Miser. I love the mayor of Southtown, dancing and singing about snow in Dixie. I love Ignatius Thistlewhite and his family around the kitchen table, unknowingly talking to St. Nick. I love that the ‘socks over the antlers’ trick can fool a dog catcher into thinking a reindeer is a pooch. I love the little girl that sings “Blue Christmas” near the end of the hour-long show. I love it all.
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 1 John 4:9 (NIV)
I have no trouble confessing that, “I believe in Santa Claus, like I believe in love…just like love, I know he’s there, waiting to be missed.” I have no problem having a belief in Santa Claus (a transliteration of Saint Nicholas – a real man who sacrificially shared the love of Christ with those around him) and I have no dispute with those who, unaware of the greatest truth of Christmas, personifies the loving Christmas spirit as a ‘jolly old elf’. I enjoy songs and specials about the magical workshop at the North Pole, where the dreams and wishes of the young (and young at heart) are made true.
But stop-motion Christmas specials about flying reindeer and a living snowman – and that Christmas before we were born when Santa needed a holiday – are still ‘guilty pleasures’. They are flights of fancy that must not distract us from reality, but accentuate it. We seek out figures like Santa, Rudolph and Frosty because we want to live in a world of unconditional love and grace. These secular symbols serve to identify the need we have – an emptiness in our hearts – and not to fill it. That void can only be filled by the gift of God that 1st Christmas – the incarnate word and presence of God, Jesus Christ.
I hope you have the opportunity to indulge in your guilty pleasures over the next two weeks. However, I pray that these differing ways of celebrating Christmas are not an end unto themselves, but rather a means to appreciating the true joys of Emmanuel’s birth. As for me, I’m looking forward to a little time with Jingle and Jangle…and getting ready for Jesus.
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
One of the blessings of our new neighborhood is that the house three doors away covers his front yard with a Christmas light display. We had seen the lights in prior years as we drove by, but now we can stand on the sidewalk while enjoying the details: a reindeer that moves its head, “Merry Christmas” written on the fence, a flying angel and more. It is quite a spectacle to behold. There must be a thousand lights on their yard, smack dab in the middle of the urban landscape. It shines bright through the community.
Christmas lights like these remind me of the prophet Isaiah’s words, that one day in the future a great light will dawn in the land of deep darkness. One day, God inspired Isaiah to record, the darkness — the muck of gloom and distress that we all are mired within – will be overwhelmed and overcome. Just as it was when Isaiah wrote to the people of his day, we, too, witness the same distress and gloom today in the faces of those seeking refuge on foreign soil, those oppressed by human systems, those who are poor and those who have lost hope. There is a great darkness that requires a great light. Christmas lights remind me that Jesus is that great light.
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12
Jesus told the people of His day – and beyond, through the testimony of the Scriptures – that He was the one who would conquer the distress and gloom of creation. In time, His followers would realize that He is the one who reigns victorious over sin, Satan and death; the things that caused hopelessness in the human heart have been vanquished by the appearing of Jesus, the promised light. Just as flipping a light switch in a darkened room immediately dispels the darkness, Jesus, at the moment of His arrival, dispelled all the darkness we were dealing with. Then, Jesus gave us that light to share with others.
[Jesus said,] “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.” Matthew 5:14
He called us, His followers, the light of the world. He commissioned us, His brothers and sisters in faith, to continue to shine in the darkness. He equipped us, His body, to bear witness to those who are without hope in the world that the darkness has been defeated. We are the ones who are now visiting prisons, hospitals, shelters and halfway houses with the expressed intent of eliminating the gloom and distress that many in our society are saddled with. We are the ones who, like my neighbor, bear the expense for the blessing of those around us. You are the light of the world.
So, this Christmas season, find those dark corners of your community and shine for them. Seek those who are in distress or gloom and share the light of hope around them. Be a blessing to those without one. And be blessed in the warmth of His great light.
We have been getting some Christmas cards at home. At least one has contained a photocopied letter recounting that family’s highlights of the past year. I have never had the forethought to compose, copy and distribute such a letter in time to include in our season’s greetings. So, instead, allow me to share another family’s holiday letter:
Dear friends and family, It has been an interesting year for the Davidson family. The children are all doing well, getting older and continuing in their studies and the older boys are now joining me in the fields. Rachel is quite active taking care of all our needs. My work is often monotonous – leading sheep, feeding sheep, caring and tending to their injuries and shearing. I did want to tell you about an unusual evening I experienced recently. It all started quite normally: The head rancher, Jesse, the men and I took the flock to a glassy spot just outside Bethlehem. As we settled in, we were suddenly blinded by a light, like it was the middle of the day, only brighter. Boy was I scared.
Then an even stranger thing occurred: a voice, strong but soothing, came out of the brightness. I’m pretty sure it was an angel, but I’ve never seen angels before or since, so I can only assume. The words from the glowing presence told us not to be afraid, but many of us were. Then the angel told us the most incredible news: The Messiah has been born. Jacob, one of the old ranch hands, had shared with us around countless fires during countless nights that the prophets of our forefathers had declared that the Promised One would be born in Bethlehem Ephrathah, the village at the foot of our hills. The angel also told us that we could find this Deliverer of Israel in a feeding trough that very night.
Suddenly, there was not just one angel – I am sure of that now – but more like a thousand. It was so bright that my eyes hurt, like looking at the sun. We all fell back and bowed our heads as we heard what sounded like singing:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:14 (NIV)
Believe me or not, just like that all the angels were gone and we sat stunned in complete darkness. One of the guys, I think it was Old Jake, said that we ought to go down to Bethlehem and see if it was all true. I can only imagine what a sight we must have been: all those people milling around because of the census and us, dirty and smelling like sheep, standing in the midst of the revelry searching for a new-born in a manger. Part of me thought we wouldn’t find this miraculous needle in a hay stack, but after about an hour Simeon whistled, like he did to warn us of foxes, and when we all got to the place Simeon stood we saw the heralded mom and dad, and the beautiful baby boy sleeping in the feeding hay.
After a little while, we left the couple and their bundle of joy and headed back to the fields. How could we keep what we saw to ourselves? It was impossible to contain this wonderful news to ourselves. We told everyone who would listen what we had experienced – the angel, the heavenly chorus, the manger, the baby, the peace on his mother’s face.
We spent the rest of the night glorifying God, praising Him for all that we had seen and heard. The king has been born. One day he will free us from the bondage we we are experiencing. I am just glad that I, a simple shepherd, had the privilege to see him. I look forward to the day he is crowned and enrobed in the palace. I know that better days are coming – the Christ will soon be lifted up!
Yesterday was our youngest son’s eighth birthday. Joshua had been looking forward to his ‘special day’ for a long time, but not for the obvious reasons. Sure, he was excited about presents and cake and ice cream, but he was anticipating his eighth birthday for another reason: it was the day that he was no longer required to use a car safety seat. We were counting the days with him until he could sit in the van ‘like everyone else’ and, to his youthful delight, yesterday we moved the car seat out of the car and into our curb-side recycling.
For me, as his father, this action was bittersweet. A car seat/booster seat had taken up permanent residence in the backseat of our car for more than 21 years (7,765 days to be exact). The combination of black plastic, metal and fabric (or one of its numerous predecessors) that we removed from the car has faithfully protected my precious cargo, my four babies, but now it is gone. One final layer of protection and one final thread drawing me back to my children’s infancies is now gone. Joshua, like his brothers and sister before him, have reached an age where his body can withstand the impact of a car crash.
As I worry about my eight year old surviving without a safety seat, my mind drifts to Christmas and the love of the Father as he gave His only begotten son to us. I wonder if God the Father and God the Son had a conversation prior to that moment of conception in Nazareth: “We have spent an eternity together, but Adam’s children need help. I need You to surrender all You have and be born of flesh, trusting those who have rebelled against Us to care for Your every need.” “I will go, according to Your will.” No safety seats, no safety nets and no safety pins – God became defenseless and lived among us.
“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
The Almighty Creator of the universe who harnessed His power to speak the world into existence became embryonic; the one who breathed life into Adam was birthed among the livestock. He required His crowning creation, a limited human being, to supply His every need – food, shelter, comfort and protection. He who dwelled in sinless and perfect paradise from before time began was now deeply embedded in the earthly environment of dirt, disease and danger. As a father, I struggle with letting go of a car seat…I cannot imagine turning over my pre-born progeny to imperfect strangers to raise as their own.
There is just one question that remains: Why? Why would the Father give His son to us? Because He loves us so much that He will refuse us nothing we require. In a much less spectacular way, it is the same reason why there is no longer a safety seat in my back seat; I love Joshua so much that I would deny him nothing he requires, even if it pains me to do so.