AN EMPTY MANGER
When our older granddaughter was about two, a friend gave her a miniature manger scene from Peru, called a retableau. Our granddaughter was enchanted and carried it everywhere with her. It was not long before her mother noticed that the baby Jesus was missing from the scene. She looked everywhere trying to find the tiny little figure before she realized that our granddaughter had the figure of the baby Jesus clutched tightly in her hand.
Many of us are much more comfortable with Jesus when He is safely ensconced in the manger. But if we go looking for our Savior in the manger, we will find that He is not there. The path of faith leads from that manger to the foot of a cross. Then the path leads us onward to a tomb. Our faith is based on an empty manger, an empty cross, and ''thanks be to God…who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,'' (I Corinthians 15:57[KJ]) there is also an empty tomb! We need to make sure that we not only take the Christ Child out of the manger, but hold Him even closer than our granddaughter did when she held that figure so tightly in her precious little hand. We need to hold Him in our hearts.
During a children's sermon our then pastor took a shepherd's crook Chrismon ornament from one of the decorated trees as he talked about the significance of lighting the shepherd's candle during Advent. As he held up the ornament, he asked the children what it was. The almost unanimous response was: Candy Cane! While admitting that the ornament resembled a candy cane, our pastor explained the meaning of the shepherd's crook and the role that the shepherds played in the Christmas story.
I have heard and read some delightful legends about how candy canes came to be associated with Christmas, but they are not generally considered to be part of the sacred celebration of the season. And, even in a predominantly rural area such as ours, it is no surprise that today's children would not be able to identify a shepherd's crook or staff.
In a similar way it is difficult for us to identify with the long-deferred anticipation of the Jews for the coming of the Messiah. Sometimes it seems almost impossible to separate our culture's commercialization of Christmas from the worship of the magi at Jesus' feet, or the repetitive jangle of mindless Christmas songs at the mall from the glorious song of the angels announcing the Savior's birth to the shepherds long ago.
Just as our pastor took the time to patiently explain to the children that Sunday morning, we need to make sure we take time to reflect on the wonder of the greatest Gift ever given. Instead of treating ourselves with candy canes, good as they are, we need to follow our Lord's example, using the shepherd's crook of ministry.
Part of our Christmas decorations consisted of big red bows on the garage coach lights. One morning, after an uncharacteristically severe storm passed through during the night, we noticed that one of the red bows had apparently blown away. When the wind and rain finally stopped, we went out to see if we could find the missing bow. Around the corner and down in the yard, we spied it—perched in the branches of a Leyland Cypress tree we had planted several years before to use as a Christmas tree in a future year.
So often in our Christmas celebrations, we try to artificially create the spirit of the holiday with elaborate decorations or gala social occasions. And then, lo and behold, something unexpected will happen that will touch our hearts with wonder or lift our spirits in such a way that the true spirit of Christmas occurs. Just as our swept-away bow ended up in an appropriate place, decking a bare tree with unanticipated glory, so can we be touched with the glory of the realization of what God did so long ago with the birth of a tiny baby.
Our younger granddaughter, then not quite six, asked if she could rearrange the figures in several of the crèches that I have collected over the years. Now you have to understand that I have a ‘thing' about not putting the wise men close to the manger scene, assuming that they were not present on the night that the shepherds came, following the directions of the heavenly host. But our granddaughter arranged every one of the crèches in exactly the same way—every single figure clustered tightly around the manger.
As I have walked past the various manger scenes since she worked on them, I have been struck by how appropriate her arrangement really is. Regardless of the traditions or ‘things' we have about how we decorate, what we cook, or when and how we open gifts, if we celebrate Christmas without the Christ Child at the center of things, we have missed the point. The wonderful Gift of Love that was given to all of us on that night so long ago should draw us all to worship and adore, not forgetting afterwards to go and tell the Good News.
''He [Christ] is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.'' Col. 1:17 (NIV)
It's Christmastime, I'm sure you know; just ask the Mom with tot in tow
Who sees the toys piled row on row and asks with voice pitched not so low,
''Which one's for me?''
It's Christmastime, what shall I do? I've gifts to buy and dollars few;
The house to clean; then right on cue the guests arrive; and bills are due --
Oh, woe is me!
It's Christmastime, there's much to bake; a tree to buy and decorate;
Rehearsal time -- I'm running late! I volunteered and set a date --
Oh, my! Oh, me!
It's Christmastime! What did you say? Slow down and take some time to pray,
To meditate that on this day the One Who lay on bed of hay
Came to earth for me.
It's CHRISTmastime! That sacred night makes my heart sing with joy. I might
Not get each thing just right, but done with love and in Thy sight,
This day will honor Thee.
‘MIDST THE NOISE
''While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the hostel.'' Lk. 2:6 (TM)
In Helsinki, Finland, there is a very unusual church built into a rock outcropping on the top of a hill. When we entered, there was a small sign requesting silence in a place of worship, but its message was ignored by most of the folks who were there were seeing it as a tourist site—not as a church—and the noise level was quite loud. We were fortunate to be there on a Sunday, and as my daughter and I sat quietly, reverence and the presence of God seemed far away. Gradually, however, the tour groups moved on and as time for a service neared, we were blessed with the taped sounds of organ music.
The old Christmas carol ''O Little Town of Bethlehem'' speaks of the silence and quietness of Bethlehem's streets, but it occurred to me that those streets were probably as thronged with ‘tourists' as the Rock Church in Helsinki. Yet, in the midst of those crowds a miracle took place—the Lord God of hosts was born. Just so, that day in Helsinki, and in the busyness and noise of our daily lives, the presence of God can be sensed—the One Who came to the manger of Bethlehem comes wherever a place (our hearts) is prepared to receive the Lord.
MY BULB WON'T LIGHT!
''In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….In Him was life, and that life was the light of men.'' John 1:1,4(KJ)
One Christmas season I heard noise in the sanctuary as I was walking by, so I stuck my head in. The sanctuary was abuzz with activity as the decorating committee worked hard to deck the sanctuary with boughs of greenery. One of them was putting the finishing touches on a window arrangement, festive greenery centered with an electric candle. I admired Joy's handiwork, but she disclaimed the compliment with a characteristic chuckle, saying, ''But my bulb won't light!''
As I left I thought about how often our Christmas celebrations are put together very carefully: decorations are just right, parties are planned, baking is done, presents are bought and wrapped, special donations made to church and charity; somehow the busy-ness of the holidays takes on a life of its own. In the hustle and bustle of all that needs to be done, there will be a hollowness if we lose focus on the fact that the Light of the world needs to be burning in the midst of all that we do.
THE EMPTINESS OF CHRISTMAS
''The angel said, ‘Don't be afraid. I'm here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide. A Savior has just been born in David's town, a Savior who is Messiah and master.''' Luke 2:10,11(TM)
Our choir sang a Christmas anthem a couple of years ago that is a setting of ''O Holy Night'' and uses ''Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts'' as the accompaniment. One of the lines of text from the latter says, ''from the best bliss that earth imparts, we turn unfilled to Thee again.'' The Christmas season is one that can leave us with full calendars, flat pocketbooks, frazzled nerves and an emptiness that aches. It is easy to lose sight of the reason behind that holy, divine night when the love of God reached down through time and space in the person of a tiny babe.
There is no way to have a Christmas experience overflowing with love, joy and peace without the One whose birth we celebrate. Just as the accompaniment in the anthem undergirded the melody we sang, just so our Christmas festivities need to rest on the foundation of the coming of Christ to live and die for us.
THE GIFT CACHE
''The next servant said, ‘Here's your money safe and sound. I kept it hidden in the cellar.''' Luke 19:20(TM)
When our girls were growing up I had a special place where I hid their Christmas gifts. It was a wonderful hiding place because they never discovered it. Even when they were old enough to go poking around looking for secret places, and to ask all kinds of questions trying to trick us into telling them, they didn't discover it until they were grown and asked—then I was willing to tell them. It always gave me a warm feeling to think of those gifts, sitting there so carefully stowed away, as I anticipated their response to what had been selected for them. I always, of course, opened the hiding place when they were not around and got out the gifts and gave them, so their pleasure was realized.
The Lord has given each of us gifts that are to be used in God's service. Many of us do so. But some of us take those gifts and cache them away in a secret place. Thinking about those gifts and how special they are brings us a warm glow. But as long as the gifts sit in their hiding place, they don't serve the purpose for which they were intended: to honor the Lord. We don't honor God by allowing our gifts to lie quietly in a safe place; we honor God by using those gifts to serve the Lord and to serve others in God's name.
THE GIFT OF GIVING
''Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light.'' James 1:17(KJ)
I truly enjoy giving gifts. I buy Christmas gifts all year long and eagerly anticipate the opportunity to see someone open a gift, hoping to see a telltale sign that I have chosen aptly. Sometimes I do better than others, and with some people—have you ever noticed how easy it is to buy gifts for some folks than for others? But the difficult-to-buy-for-folks just present more of a challenge—a chance to look harder or more creatively for something to please them. Occasionally I have selected a gift that I am sure will be just perfect, only to realize that I have missed the mark. Other times I have picked up something almost off-handedly and brought great joy to the receiver.
Our Lord surrounds us with gifts, both spiritual and otherwise. These gifts are always just right for us, even if we don't realize it at the time. The spiritual gifts God gives to us are given to equip us for the tasks meant for us to do, so we should never question what we have been given, just put it in the Lord's hands for service. And the other gifts we receive (peace that passes understanding, joy in the midst of pain, beauty in spite of ugliness, light in the darkness and on and on the list goes) are always given when we need them most and often when we least expect them. As we walk along life's path, we need to acknowledge both the gift and the Giver, and give back to God by giving to others.
WHO WOODEN NOSE
''Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men [and women] on whom His favor rests.'' Luke 2:14(NIV)
Our oldest granddaughter loves to sing, especially Christmas songs. When she was three-and-a-half she particularly liked to sing ''Up on the Housetop.'' With great joy she lustily sang, ''Ho, ho, ho, who wooden nose! Ho, ho, ho, who wooden nose!'' Now that she is older she has learned the correct words and is embarrassed to be reminded of her incorrect version that we, as the indulgent grandparents that we are, thought was perfectly charming.
Our granddaughter's distortion of the words of a song is illustrative of how we have distorted the meaning of Christmas. We have taken the celebration of the greatest Gift ever given and turned it into a commercial extravaganza. We have perverted the glorious song of the angels into the raucously repetitious bombardment of store and mall sound systems. The promise of peace and good will is lost in this war and strife-filled world of ours. A three-year-old's misunderstandings can be smiled at, but the Lord above must weep at what we have made of Christmas.
THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS
(with apologies to Clement Moore)
‘Twas the day after Christmas and all through the house
There were boxes and paper stacked up by my spouse.
The tree looked so barren bereft of its gifts
Just like our spirits, which all needed lifts.
All the energy, time we had spent took its toll.
We just needed to rest or go out for a stroll.
It's the day after Christmas—oh, what a letdown.
The company's gone on their way out of town.
The red and the green that looked festive before
Now clash with the burgundies, navies and more.
We worked very hard to make everything right
So that even the silver is shining so bright.
When dinner is eaten and leftovers stashed,
When each gift's been opened and all the trash mashed,
We sit back in wonder as at my heart tugs
The magic of love shown in gestures and hugs.
The hustle and bustle of excited small feet
Have left us with hearts full of mem'ries so sweet.
No package or gift could come even close
To meaning as much as that kiss on the nose.
That very first Christmas touched so many lives
That we dare not forget that it's His love that thrives
On the day after Christmas as well as all others.
And peace and good will to our sisters and brothers
Should carry the spirit of Christmas on through
To touch all our lives with His glory, too.
God's gift to us, His wonderful Son
Inspires us to give, when all's said and done,
All that we are and could possibly be—
Then the day AFTER Christmas will shine, too, you'll see.