Darkness into LIGHT

Advent begins in darkness. This is a deliberate thing, meant to bring us back to a time when the prophets declared that the “people were walking in darkness.” That scripture is a word-figure for the reality of the absence of the Light of the World from our lives. Before Jesus arrived, God’s people had descended from the Garden of Eden into deep and hopeless darkness, until it was so ink-black you could not see your soul in front of your face.

We recognize the descent into darkness and Advent’s ascent into light in the things around us. The Advent wreath has four unlit candles on the first day of Advent. Each Sunday we light one, then two, then three, then four, and FINALLY we arrive at Christmas Eve, when the white Christ candle standing at the center is lit. What a joyful moment that is to behold…all the flames dancing at once in the air of anticipation met and expectation unfolded.

Ponder this Christ Candle lighting liturgy from the United Methodist Church:

O Finality.
O final Light.
O luminous One,
outshining lamp, stars and sun.

O End of Night.
O Day’s Light without ending.

O Light, all light,
outshining lamp, stars and sun.

Break forth, O heavenly Light, and reign to the ages of ages.
Shine forever and let no more greed or hatred near.
Illumine and save all creation,
outshining lamp, stars and sun.

O Light, we shall see face to face.
O Radiancy, we shall ever bear upon our foreheads.
O Splendor of Love, the world of greed and hatred ending,
outshining lamp, stars and sun.

That is a rich and beautiful series of images, emotions, and ideas. You may want to read it again. But the repetition of “outshining lamp, stars and sun” truly stands out. Jesus is the true light that illumines everything; a light that no one can extinguish.

Maybe this Christmas Eve is still dark for you. Grief, loneliness, illness, separation, missing your family, financial hardship…many things can dull the light. But all these things are worldly. Jesus is the Light of the World, and he longs to shine warmth, joy, and peace into your dark places.

Today is a day to do nothing else but embrace the Light. His light brings healing. His light brings solace. His light shines the way to eternal light, where literally none of those things matter. As much as it matters here and as deeply as you are feeling it, NONE of it will matter in eternity.

John 1 (NIV)

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

No darkness can overcome Jesus. He outshines the lamp. He outshines the stars. He outshines the SUN.

Bask in that light today. If you are headed to a Christmas Eve service, listen for the light, look at the light, and be the light. If you aren’t, ponder these words again just like Mary pondered the angel’s proclamation of Jesus’ birth…in your heart.

Jesus is the Light of the World! A light no one can extinguish.

Becca’s Moon by Becca Ziegler

I Believe, I Believe

One of my favorite scenes from the marvelous movie, “A Miracle on 34th Street” is a brief moment at the end of the film. It is Christmas Day and young Susan, her mother Doris, and attorney Fred Gailey are attending a Christmas party at an old folks home. Susan had asked Santa to bring her a new home for Christmas, and is terribly disappointed when there is no evidence of it under the Christmas tree. She sits alone in a chair holding the doll she received and says despondently, “I believe, I believe. It’s silly, but I believe.” The story line has focused on Susan and Doris’ practical and jaded approach to all things fantastical, but eventually both of them have been won over by Kris Kringle. Susan’s disappointment in not receiving the gift she longs for is palpable, and while her words express belief, her monotone delivery and her slumped-over posture betray her conflict.

Whoa. Ever been there?

Have you ever experienced a moment of disappointment that was so profound that it rocked you to the very core of your deeply-held beliefs? Life can do that to you. The betrayal of a spouse, the discovery of a loved one’s addiction, the diagnosis of a terminal illness, getting fired from a job you love, a teenager’s rebellion…the list goes on.

In the 9th chapter of Mark, there is an amazing story about a man who brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus to be healed. The focus of this story is not so much on the healing, but what happens to the father’s beliefs:

Mark 9 (The Message)

21-22 He asked the boy’s father, “How long has this been going on?”

“Ever since he was a little boy. Many times it pitches him into fire or the river to do away with him. If you can do anything, do it. Have a heart and help us!”

23 Jesus said, “If? There are no ‘ifs’ among believers. Anything can happen.

24 No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the father cried, “Then I believe. Help me with my doubts!”

25-27 Seeing that the crowd was forming fast, Jesus gave the vile spirit its marching orders: “Dumb and deaf spirit, I command you—Out of him, and stay out!” Screaming, and with much thrashing about, it left. The boy was pale as a corpse, so people started saying, “He’s dead.” But Jesus, taking his hand, raised him. The boy stood up.

We are almost at the end of this ADVENT-ure that we’ve been on. Advent has been a time of rediscovering the miracle of Jesus’ birth, of centering ourselves on the manger, and of diving deep into the prophecies and discovering the Messiah in a new and personal way. But at the core, our journey has been about belief.

Do you believe? Do you accept the glorious ridiculousness of the immaculate conception, God-made-flesh, angels surrounding the hillsides, and peace on earth?

I believe. And I believe that belief is a life-long journey. I believe it is not unheard of to stand before Jesus in moments of deep crisis and say, “I believe. Help me with my doubts!” This isn’t contradictory, it’s HUMAN.

“I believe. I believe. The world tells me it’s silly, but I believe.” To the Susan who lives within all of us, know that it is OK to sugar your beliefs with doubts. It’s just not OK to be content with staying doubtful. That’s why we go to scripture every day, to help us with our doubts.

When Advent is over, we will quickly approach a new year. Let us continue this journey into a deeper belief by being in the Word every day…together.

At the end of the scene in the movie, a miracle of circumstances leads Susan, Doris, and Fred into a subdivision where the exact home that Susan has requested sits, with a For Sale sign in the yard. As she runs through the empty house squealing in delight, Fred and Doris give voice to their doubts and in the same breath, confirm their belief in all things good: reconciliation, marriage, hope, family, a future together in that house…and Santa. They gaze off to the fireplace, and there sits Kris’ familiar cane. Their belief is rewarded!

So, too, will yours.

Echo Lake Christmas Reflections

#unrushedchristmas

Let’s make this a THING! I have spotted FaceBook posts of families doing intentional, thoughtful things this season that aim to slow down the crazy roll we find ourselves on as Christmas approaches. The posts are marked #unrushedchristmas. One family posted pictures of a visit to a local restaurant that has massive outdoor decorations. They took their time looking at each one, and the children did a little dancing to the outdoor Christmas music that was playing on the loudspeakers. Another mom posted that she grabbed a cup of coffee and drove down our beach road to look at decorations rather than travel our busy and business-packed bypass. #unrushedchristmas is a movement aimed at creating mindfulness in each day of Advent so that we don’t arrive at Christmas exhausted and resentful.

What a supremely marvelous idea!

It occurs to me as I read these accounts that being unrushed in this season pays homage to the first Christmas, where nothing was or could be rushed. Think about the journey Mary and Joseph found themselves taking. Because a census was being conducted, they had to travel back to their hometown of Bethlehem, on a donkey and on foot. You don’t go anywhere fast with those modes of transportation.

Luke 2 (The Message)

1-5 About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David’s town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiancée, who was pregnant.

To put this into context, the distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem is almost 100 miles. At a good pace, that would be about 10 days of walking, and remember, Mary was just about ready to give birth. Nothing happened fast that first Christmas.

Neither should it today.

How can you slow down, take a deep breath, and breathe in all the glory, wonder, and majesty of the season? What can you do TODAY to unrush your rushing around? What can you let go of, simplify, or release, so that the season takes on a more humane pace?

I suppose the real question is, do you really need all that perfection?

Everyone longs for the perfect Christmas, the perfect tree, the perfect table setting, the perfect dinner, and the perfect gift. And we should know better. These things do not exist, yet every year we frantically pursue the perfect Christmas like it’s our JOB.

Stop.

Think.

Simplify.

Worship.

Adore.

Breathe.

Unrush yourself, and join in the awe and wonder of the miracle.

If it helps, imagine yourself walking almost 100 miles to get to Christmas. No matter how fast or slow you go, it will still be there. Christmas comes, whether we think we are ready for it or not. So sloooooow down and be mindful. Stop trying to create the perfect Christmas. Slow down and sit at the manger for a moment. Jesus deserves our full attention for his birthday.

Be #unrushed.

Photo by Meredith Koebley Snider

http://www.meredithksnider.com/

No Peeking

There is no better way to ruin Christmas when you are a kid than to sneak around and peek at your presents before Christmas Day. I did this once at the prompting of my evil older sister, and it was the WORST CHRISTMAS EVER. She had discovered the stash of presents my mother hid in her bedroom closet and ”forced” me to look. OK, forced is a strong word. I must admit that I was a willing participant. But what a miserable Christmas that was, trying to look surprised as we opened each present with our fake “oooohs and ahhhhs.” Never again did we make THAT mistake!

Christmas is all about the Big Reveal. Even better than seeing what make-over decorator magic Chip and Joanna have pulled off again this week, the big reveal of Christmas exposes so much more than how Christmas appears from the outside.

It isn’t just the gift of an infant in a manger. It isn’t just the presence of God on earth. It isn’t only the miracle of the immaculate conception. It isn’t just the Gloria in Excelsis Deo. It is all that, and so much more. It is a proclamation of freedom from the bondage of sin and oppression.

It is the gift of an inheritance as the rightful heirs of our Papa.

Galatians 4 (The Message)

4-7 But when the time arrived that was set by God the Father, God sent his Son, born among us of a woman, born under the conditions of the law so that he might redeem those of us who have been kidnapped by the law. Thus we have been set free to experience our rightful heritage.

You can tell for sure that you are now fully adopted as his own children because God sent the Spirit of his Son into our lives crying out, “Papa! Father!” Doesn’t that privilege of intimate conversation with God make it plain that you are not a slave, but a child? And if you are a child, you’re also an heir, with complete access to the inheritance.

In all that is amazing about this big reveal, let’s focus on just one aspect of this passage. At the first Christmas, we were given the privilege of INTIMATE CONVERSATION with God. We received complete access to an inheritance that affirms us as his children. We are granted the chance to dialogue with the one who offers us eternal life. WE HAVE ACCESS TO PAPA.

There is no present in Mom’s closet that can even come close.

How can you experience this great gift today? Where is God calling you into intimate conversation with him? What does inheritance in the kingdom really mean to you?

You are a child of God. Christmas reveals that. So open up this gift and use it. Talk to your Papa! This is one gift you will receive this year that is appropriate to both keep and re-gift. Go and tell it on the mountain, and everywhere.

Peeking. Photo by Wende Smith Pritchard

All is Well

In 1989, Michael W. Smith wrote these amazing lyrics in a hauntingly beautiful Christmas song:

All is well, all is well
Angels and men rejoice
For tonight darkness fell
Into the dawn of love’s light
Sing A-le
Sing Alleluia

All is well, all is well
Let there be peace on earth
Christ has come, go and tell
That He is in the manger
Sing A-le
Sing Alleluia

I learned this chorus many years ago when I sang in a church choir, and every Christmas Eve, the words come back to me with a surge of joyful peace. They remind us that no matter what is going on, no matter what shock you have experienced, what disappointment or life-changing event has just come your way, all is well.

I had an opportunity to live out these lyrics one Christmas Eve when all was not well. Just days before Christmas, the pastor whom I worked with was removed from our church under complaints of misconduct. The congregation did not know. The bishop acted swiftly and appropriately according to our denomination’s well-outlined process, and suddenly I was alone, facing Christmas Eve services. All was not well.

Our District Superintendent came to preach, but as the congregation looked at me, confused, heartbroken, angry, and in shock, I felt God calling me to stand before them and assure them that even in that moment of incredible disruption, all is well…or at least it would be, with the passing of time and the completion of process.

So I sang the first verse to them.

In the face of things not being well by any stretch of the imagination, Smith’s lyrics take us back to the time of Jesus’ birth, when he came to set well all that was not well. We remember that the people had walked in darkness, and then saw his light, just as the prophet had foretold:

Isaiah 9 (NIV)

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.

We remember that darkness fell when the dawn of love’s light was birthed in the manger. We remember that Jesus came to bring peace on earth, and in the fullness of time, we WILL experience peace. Sing Alleluia, for all is well.

What a shocking revelation. To think that in the midst of cancer, war, terrorism, the abuse and neglect of the poor and the elderly, homelessness, personal tragedy…all is well?

Yet Christmas comes to remind us of just that truth. Christ came in a manger to assure us that all IS well. We would do well to heed that truth. In contrast to earthly problems and crises, heaven stands wide open, proclaiming the hope, love, joy and peace of a future where everything and everyone is well.

So in the midst of your dark place, there is nothing better than to sing. Sing in the hope that it might come true for you. Sing in the expectation of God’s intervention. Sing, knowing that the Lord of the Dance has everything under control. Just sing.

In my situation, it took months of pain before wellness began to return. But it did, and it returned in waves. Take heart: your wellness is coming, so just SING.

All is well, all is well
Lift up your voices and sing
Born is now Emmanuel
Born is our Lord and Savior
Sing Alleluia
Sing Alleluia
All is well!

A Light has Dawned by Mary Anne Mong Cramer

Speechless

This obviously is a topic I know nothing about.

Have you ever had something happen that was so profound that it rendered you speechless? Like, literally not able to make words or even syllables come out of your mouth? Yeah, me neither. But we do know that it can happen to some people when a unexpected surprise comes along suddenly and without warning.

Zachariah experienced speechlessness. Not just for a moment, but for many, many months. He received the unexpected news from an angel that he and his wife (both “long in tooth and older than the hills”) were expecting a baby. Elizabeth had waited all of her life for a child, but was barren through her child-bearing years. Now, in her geriatric phase, she was suddenly pregnant. What the heck? The news was so startling, it took her breath, and Zachariah’s voice, away:

Luke 1 (The Message)

18 Zachariah said to the angel, “Do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman.”

19-20 But the angel said, “I am Gabriel, the sentinel of God, sent especially to bring you this glad news. But because you won’t believe me, you’ll be unable to say a word until the day of your son’s birth. Every word I’ve spoken to you will come true on time—God’s time.”

AHA! So it was the angel who took Zachariah’s voice away! Seems a little harsh, no? In the presence of an angel, in the moment of an unbelievable proclamation, the aged priest expressed his incredulity. That seems fair and reasonable, doesn’t it?

In Matthew Henry’s commentary, he explains it simply: “His unbelief was silenced.” That simple statement helps us to see it a different way. Zachariah was a man of influence, a temple priest. Were he to use his pulpit to brag, embellish, or publicly express doubt about the whole thing, the truth of Elizabeth’s pregnancy would always remain in question. As we know, pulpit-holders are held to a higher accountability:

Titus 1 (The Message)

5-9 Appoint leaders in every town according to my instructions. As you select them, ask, “Is this man well-thought-of? Is he committed to his wife? Are his children believers? Do they respect him and stay out of trouble?” It’s important that a church leader, responsible for the affairs in God’s house, be looked up to—not pushy, not short-tempered, not a drunk, not a bully, not money-hungry.

He must welcome people, be helpful, wise, fair, reverent, have a good grip on himself, and have a good grip on the Message, knowing how to use the truth to either spur people on in knowledge or stop them in their tracks if they oppose it.

And in fact, Zachariah’s speech was not returned to him until he wrote on a tablet, “His name is John,” as the angel had instructed him to do. With this sentence he confirmed the truth of John’s miraculous conception and affirmed John’s place in the story as the one who came to prepare the way for the Messiah, who was also miraculously conceived.

Maybe you woke up this morning and had second thoughts about something. Perhaps a moment of unbelief has come upon you in a difficult situation. You may be having doubts about God’s presence in your mess. God won’t render you speechless, but he most certainly will come to you in the quietness of your contemplation in a “Be still, and know that I am God” moment.

Know today that you are in good company. All of us, at one time or another, question God’s activity and wonder what the heck is going on. We retreat into the silence of our own thoughts, seeking out the spirit and finding him there.

In times like these, it is good to remember the miracles of Christmas. Each one had to be waited for, and each came in their own time…God’s time. So in your doubt, remember to look up, look out, and look for a sign. God is here, Emmanuel, and he came to save. You can count on it.

Look up. God is here. By Becca Ziegler

Lady-in-Waiting

From a historical perspective, a lady-in-waiting was a noblewoman of lower rank who attended a noblewoman of higher rank, such as a queen or princess. Her work centered on ensuring that the personal needs of her mistress were taken care of. More courtier or companion than servant, ladies-in-waiting provided assistance with secretarial needs, etiquette, practicing court dances, embroidery, wardrobe care, and delivering messages on behalf of their mistress in a discreet fashion. They wait in both contexts of that word: they wait on their mistress, and they sit and wait for their mistress to send for them.

I need a lady-in-waiting! Where can I get one?

Every woman I know has been a lady-in-waiting at some point in her life. Not in the context of court duties, but in the sense of having to wait for something. When we are engaged, we are waiting for the wedding to happen. When we’re pregnant, we wait for childbirth. We wait to hear if we’ve been accepted into college and grad school. We spend time sitting in the doctor’s office waiting for test results, and outside the interview room, waiting to see if we got the job. When hospice is brought in, we wait for our loved one to pass from this life to the next.

And then there is type of waiting that all people experience every day…waiting in line, waiting for phone calls, waiting at red lights, waiting for an apology, waiting for a house to sell, waiting for Christmas/vacation/birthdays/retirement to come…wait, wait, wait.

I hate waiting. How about you?

Luke 1 (The Message)

5-7During the rule of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest assigned service in the regiment of Abijah. His name was Zachariah. His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron. Her name was Elizabeth. Together they lived honorably before God, careful in keeping to the ways of the commandments and enjoying a clear conscience before God. But they were childless because Elizabeth could never conceive, and now they were quite old.

Elizabeth waited all her life to have a child. She did all the right things, lived a righteous life, and yet was still waiting into her old age. And then the unthinkable happened. An angel visited her husband Zachariah with some startling news:

13-15 But the angel reassured him, “Don’t fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God.

And leap like a gazelle they did! Then another kind of waiting began. Meanwhile, in another part of Israel, Elizabeth’s cousin Mary was also having a conversation with an angel, who brought her some startling news as well. And then he concludes with telling her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy:

36-38 “And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”

Waiters, take heed. NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD.

The thing you are waiting for will come to be, in God’s time. And if it doesn’t, it wasn’t going to be good for you. When I was five, I prayed for a pony. Still waiting.

God always works for the good of those who love him and who are called to his purpose. (Romans 8:28) So while waiting is tedious, stressful, and downright aggravating, we can acknowledge that God is present, even in the waiting.

One thing I noticed about how Elizabeth spent her waiting time was that she and Zachariah were said to “enjoy a clear conscience before God.” That tells me that they understood the value of repentance, which ironically was what their son John would spend his lifetime preaching about. Clear consciences come when we attend to God’s commandments and live honorable lives.

As you wait, consider this. How is your conscience? Is it clear? Are you harboring any grudges, withholding any offerings from God, or practicing things that would separate yourself from him? Are you ignoring God’s call to go and make amends with someone before you return to the altar?

Repentance is the great conscience-cleanser. When we turn away from sin and return to God, the angels rejoice and our load becomes lighter.

As you wait, remember Mary and Elizabeth. They waited, and waited, and waited. Then, in the fullness of time, they birthed joy, hope, salvation, and redemption for the world. What will God bring forth from your waiting?

Our mothers told us that good things come to those who wait. May you experience patience in the waiting, hope for the future, redemption in the now, and a new understanding that NOTHING is impossible with God.

Waiting for the Snow to Melt so I Can Play Ball (2014)

I Know Him!

The tradition of Santa Claus is a rich and storied one. Many countries have their own version, but the American tradition began with an idea that came across the ocean with 17th-century Dutch immigrants. They were moving to New York and brought with them a story of a kind benefactor known as “Sinter Klaas.” Author Washington Irving wrote about the Dutch version of St. Nicholas in 1809, who was said to arrive on horseback every year on the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas to distribute presents in the villages.

The Dutch-American St. Nick was immortalized in Clement Clark Moore’s poem published in 1823 entitled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known as “The Night Before Christmas.”

The St. Nicholas legend stems from a real third-century A.D. monk named Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna (Izmir). He was a wealthy man who delighted in throwing presents to poor children through the windows of their homes. He traveled the country giving away all of his wealth and helping the poor and the sick.

The Catholic Church honored St. Nicholas as the patron saint of children and seafarers. In England, the tradition of Father Christmas has been observed for centuries, and the French have their own Pere Noel.

What all of these variations of Santas have in common is a reputation for giving to the poor, showing compassion to the marginalized, focusing on the needs of the children, and assisting those who have very little. Sounds just like Jesus.

Santa, in essence, is a giver, with his roots in the sacred traditions.

Isaiah 58 (NIV)

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice

    and untie the cords of the yoke,

to set the oppressed free

    and break every yoke?

7  Is it not to share your food with the hungry

    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—

when you see the naked, to clothe them,

    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

8  Then your light will break forth like the dawn,

    and your healing will quickly appear;

then your righteousness will go before you,

    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;

    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

And in turn, WE respond, here I am Lord. Send me. I have no proof, but I imagine that the original St. Nicholas said exactly that when God called him to a life of generosity. In doing so, he evolved into a secular icon that speaks of the sacredness of giving. We have to give Santa his due, as he points to the generosity of spirit and kindness to all.

Perhaps the best way to honor the tradition of St. Nicholas is to do what Isaiah is calling us to do: share our food with the hungry, provide the poor wanderer with shelter, clothe the naked, and especially to not turn away from our own family members.

How will you respond? Where is God calling you to give of yourself in a new and fresh way this Advent season?

Whatever it is, DO IT. God promises to be your rear guard, and your light will break forth in your generosity. And that light, like the light of Christ himself, dispels all the darkness of the world.

My uncle has been blessed with a pure white beard, a jolly temperament, and a particular call to exemplify the compassion and generosity of Santa. He has worked for years as a professional Santa, which comes with a lot of guidelines. For example, Santa can’t promise anything, but must respond with “I’ll put it on my list” when a child asks for something. Uncle Chuck tells of some sad moments in his career, such as the time when a little girl sat on his lap and asked only for a new pair of shoes. His greatest joy in this role is that it has allowed him to be “the spirit of love and compassion.”

Isn’t that what all of us should be doing this season?

Embodying the love of God and the compassion of the babe in the manger is a job of Santa-like proportions. Where is God calling you to embody that spirit today?

See the Santa? Be the Santa.

Photo courtesy of Georgianna DeCarmine and The State College Magazine

https://mydigitalpublication.com/publication/?i=637228#%7B%22issue_id%22:637228,%22view%22:%22articleBrowser%22,%22article_id%22:%223542673%22%7D

Please Unwrap Before Christmas

On November 1st, a friend of mine posted on FaceBook that she had completed all of her Christmas shopping and had wrapped every single present. Then on the Thanksgiving morning she posted a picture of said wrapped presents under a perfectly decorated Christmas tree, all plugged in and tinseled out, ready to go. So you know what I did? I BLOCKED her. I mean, really, who needs friends like that??

But seriously, the tradition of wrapping presents is a curious one. Everyone has a different philosophy of wrapping. My beloved mother-in-law was an excellent gift wrapper. She measured everything, used her ruler to make perfect cut lines, tucked all the corners under in perfect envelope-shapes, and matched her seams with precision. Then the tag and the bow were carefully chosen to match. The wrapping was a gift itself. Me, not so much. When gift bags became popular, I rejoiced. I use them without apology. And you’re lucky if it has matching tissue paper. Or any tissue paper.

Of course so much of the fun of Christmas is trying to guess what is under the colorful wrapping. People will pick up presents, shake them, smell them, and spend days (or in my friend’s case, MONTHS) wondering what the wrapping contains.

Jesus was said to be “wrapped in swaddling cloths” when the shepherds came to see him. They probably also wondered what the wrapping contained.

Luke 2:8-12 New King James Version (NKJV)

8 Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

It was common practice in that time to wrap a newborn in strips of cloth. As any good NICU nurse will tell you, swaddling (done now with a blanket) is still a good practice. It restricts the sudden, jerky reflex that newborns have when they are startled and keeps baby warm and feeling secure. In many ways, swaddling replicates the safety and comfort of the womb.

Jesus, like any other baby, was swaddled. His Christmas wrapping was a gift from his parents, who understood the magnitude of the gift they were wrapping up. Even the shepherds understood that they were experiencing something otherworldly and extraordinary, and they instantly knelt in worship.

It can take a lifetime to unwrap the gift of Jesus. It will take a lifetime of study, prayer, worship, and service to fully realize what we have received. Christmas is an invitation to peek under the wrapping and see what you can see. Do you see what I see? There you will find the Word of God, ready to be held, read, and cherished.

And one last thought…Jesus was wrapped in strips of cloth at both his birth and his burial.

John 19 (NIV)

40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.

And so Jesus’ Christmas wrapping is a reminder that he indeed was born to die…so that you might live. That is the greatest gift you will ever receive.

So open this gift with joy. Open it with a solemn understanding of what you’ve been given. Open it with great abandonment. Open, and receive eternity in all of its glory.

Beautiful Wrappings by Gail Driver

The Miraculous, Glorious Absurdity

Isaiah 9

2 The people walking in darkness

    have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of deep darkness

    a light has dawned.

3 You have enlarged the nation

    and increased their joy;

they rejoice before you

    as people rejoice at the harvest.

Of all the Old Testament prophets who pointed to the coming of the Messiah, I love the words of Isaiah the best. Did you know that Jesus quoted from Isaiah more that any other prophet? Jesus was the fulfillment of all of the prophecies, and Isaiah apparently says it best.

One of the Advent traditions that many churches observe is called the Festival of Lessons and Carols. It tells the entire story from start to finish of how the Messiah came, and why he was necessary. While it relies on several Isaiah passages, it doesn’t start there. Surprised?

It starts with Genesis. From the beginning of time, we needed a Savior. With the first sin in the garden, humanity necessitated a saving from ifself, as it were. We see throughout the entire Old Testament that the sacrificial system offered by God in order to redeem us failed again and again.

Then came Jesus, the fulfillment of every promise and the hope of every heart. Jesus is the end-all-be-all of sacrificial lambs. He took the sins of the world upon himself and we are forever reconciled with God through Jesus’ saving death that brings eternal life.

And thus the need for the incarnation. The incarnation is understood as “God becoming flesh.” God, in his omniscience, realized that we would need a Savior that we could relate to. He chose to come to earth in the form of an infant, so that he would walk, talk, suffer, feel anger, experience temptation, know hunger and fatigue, and be relatable.

John 1

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

I think the whole notion is a glorious and miraculous absurdity, and one that demonstrates God’s love beyond a doubt. That the God who created the universe would lower himself to such a humble place blows my mind. Born in dirt, cradled in straw, homeless and cold, God came, and dwelt among us. Isn’t that absurd? 

This morning I recalled a wonderful young female pastor named Alice who preached at my Annual Conference many years ago. I sat in my seat, spellbound. I had not done much preaching up to that point, and I had modeled my style after my colleagues, who were all male. When I heard Alice preach, I was stunned. She preached like a girl. She was relatable, humorous, genuine, and authentic. I never preached like a man after that. Her example helped me preach from my own voice, and it changed me forever.

The reason God came as a baby was so that he could experience the world he created, and thus be an authentic guide, a relatable savior, and a credible witness. Jesus is the real deal. The stories of his life on earth are stories we can put ourselves directly into. We can feel what he felt, see what he saw, and walk where he walked. As absurd as it was, it was the only way to save us.

God became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the greatest gift you will receive on any Christmas. How will you respond? Where will you be a credible witness, and tell this story to someone who needs to hear it? How will you relate to Jesus today?

Go, and preach this in your own voice. Tell someone about the Messiah. Better yet, act it out in everything you say, think, and do. Be the light in the darkness of somebody’s Christmas, and rejoice.

Lights in the Darkness by Suzanne Wrenn