As we reflect on the Incarnation, it is also helpful to see humans who lived lives that reveal a God’s unfailing love. Today I stumbled across an article on the man who started the Red Cross and wrote the first Geneva Convention. Herny Dunant was driven by an intense Christian vision and lived his life caring for the needy. This article is an inspiring read.
Every year cartoons and movies retell the same story: the story of a child or an adult who has lost the wonder of Christmas, “the Christmas spirit.” Every year the tale of innocence and experience is retold through the lens of Santa Claus and a heart that needs only believe.
Christmas is the time when we hope, we wish, we dream it might all really be true. Of course, we know better. And yet deep within us there is a longing for that place called the North Pole. The sophisticated refuse to waste their thoughts or time with such pointless dreaming, ah but the child in all of us longs for the dream to come true.
In our Christmas stories, we express the truths our imagination knows to be true, even when our intellect says otherwise. I believe that our stories embody our deepest beliefs: the beliefs that are fundamental to our whole understanding of the world.
Some parents hoping to protect their children give them presents but refuse to give them the stories of Christmas. But maybe stories are more important than an endless supply of boxed toys that will soon be discarded. Long after the specific toys are forgotten, the stories will be remembered. The stories shape us: they shape the boundaries of our imagination; they shape our understanding of the world—both seen and unseen.
And what do our Christmas stories tell us? What we believe really matters. The magic of Christmas is veiled to the unbeliever. For them it is only commerce—buying and exchanging of presents. But for those who believe, we know the Christmas present reminds us that the greatest treasures cannot be purchased: they can only be received as gifts. The believer offers milk and cookies in gratitude.
After we sit in the glow of our twinkling Christmas trees inside, we might notice the glorious glow of our trees outside: and for that matter our grass and our bushes may look a little brighter. The world around is not as dull and dreary as we had come to believe, but is really an explosive symphony of light.
When we see the Santa strolling through the mall, we are reminded of goodness and kindness and unending benevolence just north of all we can see or hear. We are not alone. And who knows how often we entertain angels unaware?
In the swirl of Santas, and snowmen, and songs of sleigh rides, we discover something else—a lean to, a broke down barn, a rustic shelter. Inside this stable lies a baby that bears the hopes of all the ages.
Once again, the manger is an embarrassment to the sophisticated. How could the God of the ages come to earth as a poor child? Yet this tragically beautiful tale captures the imagination: a virgin with child, a cold winter night, no place in the inn, a miracle birth, shepherds and angels and wise men. And in the center of the story: the hope of hopes lying helpless on the hay.
This is the myth of myths, the story of all stories. The story of the God who comes to earth as man—not to betray the world, not to oppress or destroy but to love in weakness; to embrace the downtrodden; love the unlovely; heal the broken heart; preach freedom to the captives; to bear the weight of every pain, every fear, every sin; to overcome evil with goodness; and to overcome death with life forevermore.
We fear the story is too good to be true. Because ultimately we fear good stories cannot be true. We’ve seen too much pain, too much loss, too much needless suffering. We’ve lost our innocence to the dark reality of this cruel world. In the midst of this dark world, a light still shines.
Dare we believe? Dare we become childlike again? Dare we believe that our stories were pointing to something real? Dare we believe in someone who created us for a life beyond all we ever could hope or imagine?
This Christmas we might truly discover the Spirit of Christmas. Or rather, he might waken us to the wonder of a love that we have longed for all our lives.
“O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”
The countdown has begun. All across the Western world, children are counting the days. Santa will be here soon.
Okay, I realize Santa doesn’t seem too spiritual. In fact, some folks go so far as to say that teaching children about Santa is dangerous. When they find out there is no Santa, they might quit believing in God. Actually, when children cease to be children they will quit believing they need God. Jesus says, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3).
Children have the capacity to appreciate the wonder and magic of myth. They may not understand why the snow falls in winter, but they delight in it as a gift from heaven. The whole world is touched with wonder. There are friendly trees and mean trees. Digging a hole in the back yard may take them to China. Fairies play in the backyard—just out of sight. Children see something adults have grown to old and blind to see. G.K. Chesterton says, “It may be that (God) has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father us younger than we.”
Children are still young in spirit. They realize this world is miraculous. The spiritual world in entwined with the physical. Their minds may not understand the subtleties of doctrines and theology but their hearts recognize the reality of spiritual light and spiritual darkness.
When it comes to Christmas, they understand something so close to the human heart that adults seem to overlook it. Christmas Eve is just as spectacular as Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is when the Mystery draws near. Paul Jones says:
“As a child I could understand this, for no Christmas Day could ever match the mystery of anticipation called Christmas Eve. All of the major Christian festivals are woven in and out of Vigils—the prior evening in which one awaits in foretaste. Especially significant are the mystery of Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and the rapture of Easter Vigil, which begins and ends in the speckled darkness of early morning. It is in anticipation, at the outer edge of yearning, deeply in time, that Mystery births us.” (A Season in the Desert, 72).
We live so close to the Mystery of God that sometimes we overlook it. In seasons like Advent, we remind ourselves of the deep inner childlike, yearning we have to draw near to the Mystery of God. He is above and beyond all we can know; yet we long to draw near Him. We live in Anticipation.
“What was that?”
“Did you hear that?”
“I think, I think
He’s out there.”
Christmas eve. The magic is almost here.
My heart is throbbing, my
mind is racing.
Tonight’s the night. Michelle says that she saw him last year.
“What was that?”
Looking down over the railing, I crane my neck to no avail.
A flickering of colors rains across the hall.
Trembling, I climb onto the top step. My body
aches to keep climbing down the stairs.
But my mind is terrified.
“What if I spoil the magic?”
crawl before me. And then,
Michelle taps my shoulder and wakes me from a long winter’s sleep. It’s time!
Our world is different. Just hours ago, he was here!
Here in this very house!
adf – 12/19/01
The young imagination can grasp the impossible. So believing in Santa is easy. When I was a child, the world was full of wonder. Everything was magical. Colors, sounds, shapes, and even smells fascinated me. In fact, I think I liked some toys because of the way they smelled. I remember one store smelled like incense (this was the 60s). That smell always made the store seem a bit mysterious. Some people’s home smelled like children were not aloud to play there. I used to play at one friend’s house who was Italian. As his mom cooked, their house smelled like families were important.
The childlike imagination is rich in associations and wonder and faith. Yet as we grow, we often loose that wonder of simple things. Soon we fail to notice the wonder around us as we plan tomorrow’s schedule or review today’s events. Scientifiic laws explain away the fancies of childhood (like why birds fly and we don’t). We see the grass as green due to light and pigmentation. The sun dissappears from view because of the rotation of the earth.
Faith in God can restore the childlike appreciation of the world. Faith doesn’t seek to do away with scientific laws, but rather, it suggests that beneath those laws is a will. The will of a Supreme, loving Creator. So we may explain the details of green, but faith says that ultimately the grass is green because a divine will wanted it green. There is an active will of a loving Creator behind every man-made explanation. God wills the Sun to shine and it does. God willed for you to exist and you do.
When we see the world through this lens, we realize the absolute wonder that we even exist. God desired you to be here this day. And somehow, in the mystery of His great love, He gave us the freedom to gaze in wonder at His creation or to ignore Him altogether.
As you watch the excitement of children this season, may the excitement and wonder of faith come to life within your own heart.
“Oh , look Mom!
I think it’s him.
Can we stop? Please, please. Can we stop?”
Standing in line,
My wet hands hands are jumbled in anticipation.
This is the “real” one.
At least I’m pretty sure.
Just look at his stomach.
That’s no pillow.
And that beard, it’s real too.
Not some cotton on elastic.
My heart is pounding.
I’ve never, …
Met the “real” one.
Quick, review my list:
a scrumpled notebook paper with pencil markings.
I hope he can read it.
Let’ see. Cross out number 3 and 7.
Can’t sound too greedy.
Put a star by 1 and 5. These are the most important.
It’s my turn!
He’s so big.
Giant hands gently swoop me into his lap.
Look at those boots. Yep, those are real.
Boy, he looks old. I bet he’s over a 1,000 years old.
“Uh, uh thanks.
Yes, I want a, a”
“A train set that lights up and whistles.
Oh, yes. I promise I would be careful.
Here’s my list.
You can, uh
Bring me, uh
Anything you want.
Thank you Santa.”
Wow! I finally met him.
Boy he sure smelled good.
by alan douglas floyd
One of my favorite memories of Christmas festivities is the making of wish lists. Several department stores sent out a “wish list” toy catalog each year, but none surpassed the Sears catalog. I spent hours pouring over the pictures and descriptions. I bent the corner of pages with potential “wish list” items for future review. Then I would visualize playing with those particular toys. The toys in my dreams were more fun than anything I ever could receive for Christmas.
There is a profound lesson here. In the wish list, the child uses the imagination to cultivate a sense of longing. This longing may start with a specific toy or any specific thing or even a specific person or a specific place. But our imagination presents a perfect or ideal image of the thing we desire—and the actual reality can never meet our expectations. And we experience disappointment.
One year, I saw a little record player recorder that supposedly could cut records. In other words, I could make my own recordings. This delightful toy bordered on the miraculous, and I dreamed of creating my own albums much to the amazement of friends and family all around. This toy topped this list. It was too good to be true. And it probably was, but I’ll never know because I never got this gift.
One thing a child must learn early is that there is no direct correlation between the wish list and the gifts received on Christmas morning. Inevitably, as delight and wonder envelope children everywhere, disappointment still lurks in the background. Nothing can ever really live up to our expectations or imaginations. And though some adults this year, like every year, will scold their children for selfishness, they too suffer from disappointments in other adults, in relationships, in job situations, in family matters and more. Disappointment is a very real and important part of longing.
I believe our idealized longing, is ultimately reaching out for a city not made by hands: a place and time that truly is just out of reach. Some might say that this type of longing is really a longing for the womb: a place where we were connected, completely safe and satisfied. In fact, some suggest that our delight with the sound of rushing waters from oceans to rivers to creeks is because the earliest sounds we knew in the womb were in liquid.
I believe the longing is not necessarily a looking back but a yearning forward. It is the hope, the longing, the yearning for the possibility that one day the happily ever after really will come true. Our best fairy tales end in a place just beyond the reach of real life. Nobody really experiences happily ever after in the here and now. They can’t. No one and nothing can meet our expectations.
We cannot even meet our own expectations. We vow to follow a new diet or a new exercise plan. We vow to be kind, to be more loving, to live selflessly. But we fall and fail. We cannot live up to our own standards, and if think we do, I assure someone else can look into our life and point out how we fail to meet their standards. Everyone falls short. Thus disappointment is inevitable.
The Hebrew prophets experienced disappointments as well. They watched a people, a nation move from reliance on God to political maneuvering and intrigue: and in the process. becoming a captive people. But many of them continue to cultivate a longing for a time when this kingdom of God would be realized in fullness. They describe this kingdom in ways that are still hard for us to imagine. The world is in perfect harmony: natural enemies are at peace. Political foes embrace; weapons of destructions are transformed into tools for nurturing and healing—even the lion lays down with the lamb.
Their lasting and profound vision of world harmony continues to reverberate throughout our world. Though far from perfect, the United Nations was created with this vision in mind and a quote from Isaiah still adorns the front of the offices in New York. But our flawed attempts fall short of Isaiah’s full vision. He describes a world only God can restore.
And this is the hope of Jews and Christians alike. We strain forward to a world of absolute perfect harmony. While past histories shape us, we are actually energized by the future. We long for God’s kingdom fully realized. Every week, Christians every where will pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done…” They are praying for nothing short of absolute and perfect harmony in the heavens and on the earth.
Instead of relegating these dreams to a Never Never Land of childhood fantasy, this Christmas we might began to dream of an Ever Ever Land. We might get out those wish lists and dream of a world perfected in love and grace. Where commerce is not based on who can take advantage of who, but all our exchanges are based on blessing and love.
While our earthly dreams are subject to fail and disappoint, the prophets revealed that we could never out dream the kingdom. Inevitably it will exceed all hopes and expectations. It is better than anything we could have ever hoped. This dream of God’s perfectly realized love drives us forward and gives us energy to live out of that kingdom now. Thus Jesus says that the world would know his disciples by their love one for another.
As we live with a vision and a longing of the kingdom, we trust in God’s faithfulness to reveal this kingdom and relate on the basis of an abundance of His love. We don’t have to scrape and steal and oppress others to get ahead. For our confidence is not the shifting sands of the present moment but in a coming kingdom that cannot fail. Thus we are free to love and lay down our lives for those around us. In fact, we are free to be seen as fools for the sake Christ. Fools because we have abandoned the way of a world that suggests that if I don’t look out for myself, others will take advantage of me. Fools because we choose to return love for hate, peace for war, kindness for anger and healing for hurting.
This Christmas may we begin to live out our wish lists and live what we pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…”
About this time, children of all ages have begun to feel an anguish burning in the pit of their stomach. Each night more Christmas trees light up family rooms. Each day mantles and hearths blossom with Pine garland, Poinsettias and empty stockings. In the midst of these transformations, children begin discovering the anguished longing of winter butterflies awaiting Santa. I remember them well and in some strange way I still feel them.
When I was a boy, it was about this time that I would begin checking the paper every day, which posted a small box counting down the days until Christmas. Every day I counted and recounted the days. Every night I turned and twisted in bed impatiently hoping for Christmas.
If we pay attention, our childish festivities might open our eyes to the mystery and wonder of our world. As our homes and hearts prepare for the coming of Christmas, we unconsciously acknowledge that Christmas comes to us.
While we know it’s coming, it still comes as a shock. It comes suddenly, like the birth of a child in the middle of the night. It comes like a twister turning our world around and upside down. It comes like a dream too good to be true. No matter how it comes, it comes.
Now it would be an odd Christmas, if upon awaking we went to the neighbor’s house and searched their stockings for surprises from Santa. It would be odder still if we flew to London and entered the house at 48 Doughty Street, searching under their tree for our Christmas gifts.
We don’t go to Christmas, it comes to us. Our particular home and our particular hearth becomes the threshold to all the mystery and magic of Christmas. We don’t have to search for it across the street or the globe for that matter. The magic comes to us.
Beneath the magic of Santa and songs and presents and play, Christmas holds a far greater mystery: the mystery of the God become man; the mystery of the child who holds the worlds in his hands. the mystery of the crying babe who comes to comfort the pains of this aching world.
Christmas hosts an absurdly wonder-filled mystery: the mystery that in the baby Jesus, God appears as a particular person at a particular place in particular time. In this wondrous act, he forever reminds us of the value of each particular place and each particular time.
It may be that we wait for the coming of Christmas because we are really waiting for the coming the Son: who will come and make all things new. It may be that as we decorate our mantles and hang stockings by our hearths we are highlighting the wonder infused in the place where we live.
Instead of longing to find that magic place beyond our world: whether across the street, across the globe or across the cosmos, we might come to discover the treasure of the place where we live. Our home and our hearth still glow with glory. Our job and our relationships, our bodies and our minds are not simply accidents or happenstances but gifts from the Creator.
Every breath is a gift from the Creator of all things. And in every breath He comes to us with mercy and grace. And with every breath we have the power to lift unceasing thanks for this wonder-filled life.
As we await for the coming Christmas, may we behold him who came, who comes today, and who will come again.
A Romanian friend, Oana, just introduced a new blog Wannabat. Hopefully she’ll be posting some pix from her native land soon.
His life was devoted to one purpose—prepare the way for the coming Messiah. John the Baptist had lived an ascetic life of absolute devotion to God. His burning passion was to see the Anointed One. In one sense, his life brought into focus the intense waiting of all ages for the Coming One: The new David that Isaiah proclaimed would usher in the kingdom of God and restore the world to an Edenic state of innocence.
When Jesus final appears, John the Baptist humbly yields the stage to Him acknowledging Jesus as the “Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.” John takes his leave with a warning announcing that Jesus would “burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
In the lonely dungeon, John the Baptist hears reports that the one he proclaimed as Messiah, goes to the parties, does not fast, and surrounds himself with questionable people. He sends words to Jesus, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”
Jesus may have loved John the Baptist more than anyone on the earth. He saw John as one of the greatest prophets to ever live. And yet, even John could not see the fullness of the kingdom. Jesus alludes to Isaiah and other testimonies from the Old Testament to describes His call, “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Mtt 11:5; Is 35:5-6).
The kingdom of God has come but in a way, that not even John the Baptist had anticipated. And Jesus says, “(B)lessed is he who is not offended because of Me” (Mtt 11:6). The Messiah comes to the weary, to the waiting, to those lost and struggling in the darkness. The Messiah comes with the kingdom of God bringing joy to the sad, comfort to the mourners, hope to the hopeless, and humiliation to the proud.
The Messiah will come again. Though He tarries, we wait. We anticipate His coming by walking in the reality of His kingdom now. But we also grow weary, and sometimes even doubtful. One of the greatest trials we face in this life is the challenge of time, of waiting. We must wait upon the Lord. Our redemption is near and yet not quite near enough.
Like the children of the Exodus, we are crossing a desert. We are heading home to the presence of the Lord. Yet, the desert saps our energy, our strength, and even our faith. As we wait, we need the grace of God to “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees” (IS 35:3). Our fearful hearts need to hear, “Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; He will come and save you” (Is 35:4).
Like John the Baptist, there are times when we may question and wonder, “Are you the coming one or should we look for another?” But He is faithful.
The same power that can cause a desert to blossom (Is 35:1) is at work in our hearts. The grace of God can bring new life and new hope to our weary souls. As we long for home, as we look for the coming of the Son, we also rest in His grace. His can lead by a way we do not know into a place we have never imagined.
My friend started a blog today. I encourage you to visit In Question. His posts should be provocative and give you ideas to wrestle with.
Anyway, he provides short stories on the background on a variety of Christmas hymns. And he reminds us that new carols are still being written. As an example, Bradley offers a little gem from contemporary hymnist Timothy Dudley-Smith. Here is a carol that Smith origninally wrote for a Christmas card in the late 70s. I enjoyed and hopefully you will to.
A Song Was Heard At Christmas
A song was heard at Christmas
To wake the midnight sky:
A saviour’s birth, and peace on earth,
And praise to God on high.
The angels sang at Christmas
With all the hosts above,
And still we sing the newborn King
His glory and his love.
A star was seen at Christmas,
A herald and a sign,
That men might know the way to go
To find the child divine.
The wise men watched at Christmas
In some far eastern land,
And still the wise in starry skies
Discern their Maker’s hand.
A tree was grown at Christmas,
A sapling green and young:
No tinsel bright with candlelight
Upon its branches hung.
But he who came at Christmas
Our sins and sorrow bore,
And still we name his tree of shame
Our life forevermore.
A child was born at Christmas
When Christmas first began:
The Lord of all a baby small,
The Son of God made man.
For love is ours at Christmas,
And life and light restored,
And so we praise through endless days
The Saviour, Christ the Lord.