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Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

The Morning of Christmas

Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us. Matthew 1:23

 

‘Twas the morning of Christmas, when Love came to earth,

By way of a tiny and humble child’s birth;

His parents had traveled so far from their home,

For the census decreed by Augustus, in Rome.

Arriving in Bethlehem, with no place to stay,

The new baby slept in a manger of hay;

With cattle and donkeys and sheep at his side,

This animal stable was home, for a time.

Angels announced the birth on that night,

To seekers and shepherds and sinners alike;

“All glory to God!” the heavenly host chimed,

“And peace on the earth to all of mankind.”

Beneath a bright star, the news was proclaimed,

Of God come to earth in the form of this babe;

A child who would grow and remake us anew,

And cover the sins of me and of you.

On the morning of Christmas, the Prince of Peace came,

To reconcile souls with their Maker, again;

God with us, Emmanuel, forever to dwell,

On the morning of Christmas, and all year as well!

May the true light of Christmas find its home in your heart today – Merry Christmas!

 

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Love Comes Anyway

 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 1 John 4:11-12

The theme for the fourth week of Advent is Love. I believe that God is love and that love manifested in human form on earth in the person of Jesus. The stories of Jesus’ birth, recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, present an unusual way for love to appear. The familiarity of these stories to those of us raised with them has perhaps caused some of the mysterious particulars to become commonplace, and so we embellish and romanticize them. It is the peculiar details, however, that point to the deceptive simplicity, the laser focus, and utter purity of the love of God for and with us.

As the Christmas story goes, Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for the Roman census. The town was crowded with others gathering there for the same reason. There was no place for the child to be born, so the birth occurred in an animal stable. We recreate this today as a quiet, peaceful scene with calm, domesticated animals, fresh hay, and gentle lighting. The reality would have been much different – loud, smelly, dirty, and dark. The point we miss from the original setting, however, is that God enters into the chaos and the messiness of our everyday lives. For most of us, God does not come with a clap of thunder, marching bands, or with pomp and circumstance. Rather, God comes as a baby. Just as the baby’s cries in Bethlehem were lost in the noise of the animals and pandemonium around the stable, so today we cannot hear the baby’s cries for the Christmas messages blaring incessantly around us. It would have been easy to miss the birth of this God-child in Bethlehem. In fact, it would have been difficult to even find it there, just as it is difficult to experience it today for all the noise and distractions.

James Finley, in his Advent reflection* for 2017, says one lesson of the Christmas story is that God comes anyway. Even when we are too busy to prepare, God appears and abides within us. It did not matter that Mary and Joseph were far from home. It did not matter that Bethlehem was crowded and chaotic. It did not matter that there was no room at the Inn. God came anyway. Nothing was ready for the baby. There was no nursery, no safety, no soft clothes, and no appropriate shelter. There was no welcome fitting for a king, so Jesus was born in squalor with farm animals. Yet, he did not seem to mind or even notice.

Life is complicated because we have made it so. Love at its core, however, is simple. In spite of our messiness and unworthiness, God comes. This is the nature of love as taught by the Christmas story, that even when nothing is as we feel it should be, love comes anyway. It is there, lying unnoticed beneath the self-imposed complexity of the season. If the house is dusty and unkempt, it all-the-more resembles the original setting for the birth of Jesus. Love is an unstoppable flow – it is given and received independent of the circumstances around it. God choses to come to us because God loves us, even and especially in our imperfection. God cannot wait to be with us and will not wait until we think we are ready. God choses to be in relationship with us knowing all relationships require a give and take to perpetuate, and accepting the risk that we may not reciprocate.

Nothing matters as much as our attentive and conscious reception of this unfathomably generous gift of God’s self. Once received, this love can be passed along to others as freely and generously as it was given to us. In being giving away, love mysteriously returns to us all the more. It is almost too easy and simple to believe. Yet, this is the meaning and purpose of the season – not the noise and chaos we have built into Christmas, but the silent simplicity of a new life being gently born into our lives, just as we are, here and now. Love comes.

*James Finley, Faculty Advent Reflections, https://cac.org/faculty-advent-messages/, sourced on December 18, 2017.

 

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Great Joy

 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

The theme for the third week of Advent is Joy. Happiness is often used synonymously with joy, but the two are significantly different. Happiness is a transitory state of mind, but joy is an underlying orientation to life. We can be happy one moment and sad the next, not unlike the ups and downs of an emotional roller-coaster. Joy, however, remains relatively constant regardless of the immediate circumstances. In Luke 2:10, the angel tells the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (emphasis added). The angel’s message clearly refers to something greater than momentary happiness. The incarnation of God on earth as Jesus was and is intended to be a life-altering, joy-inspiring occurrence.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes that God fills us with joy and peace in believing (15:13). In other words, it is our belief – our lived faith that God is real and present in our lives – that leads to joy. Like a self-perpetuating cycle, faith makes hope possible, hope brings joy, joy renews our faith, and so on. Those who lack the optimistic hope that life is defined not by its challenges but by its blessings cannot live with joy. The pessimist only sees life as one set of catastrophes after another and lives in constant fear and dread of the next disaster. A joyful person knows that great blessing lies just beneath every difficulty and waits expectantly for it. The difference is subtle, but powerful. One scriptural reason for hope is found earlier in Romans (8:28) where Paul writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…”  Nowhere in scripture are we promised an end to the troubles and heartaches of this life. Rather, we are assured that God will work through our suffering and transform it into something good. Those of us who have lived long enough and awake enough have seen this proven true repeatedly. Indeed, this is the good news of the Gospel.

One can be happy without joy for a time, but only a joyful orientation to life will bring lasting happiness. The first step is to develop our faith, and this is a personal choice. No one, including God, can force us to believe. Becoming faithful requires a willingness to trust that which we cannot see or prove exists. As we surrender into a stronger faith, we cannot help but become more hopeful about life and the future. Our faith teaches us there is nothing that can possibly happen to us that will happen beyond God’s ability to mold it into a blessing. Once we know that even death cannot separate us from love, our fears dissipate. As we worry less about the future, we become capable of experiencing joy in the present moment. This is the great joy spoken of by the angel to the shepherds. This great joy is not about some future reality in a faraway land we may see when we die, nor is it about some obscure event that happened two thousand years ago. This great joy is here, it is now, and it is available to everyone. We must position ourselves to receive it, however.

So, when I wish you a joyful Christmas season, I am not hoping you will receive lots of nice presents (not that there is anything wrong with that). My wish for you is for a life transformed by the birth of the Christ child within you. That is the path to a true and sustained joy; and from that great joy, all good things will flow!

 

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Life Notes

The Morning of Christmas

Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us. Matthew 1:23

‘Twas the morning of Christmas, when Love came to earth,

By way of a tiny and humble child’s birth;

His parents had traveled so far from their home,

For the census decreed by Augustus, in Rome.

Arriving in Bethlehem, with no place to stay,

The new baby slept in a manger of hay;

With cattle and donkeys and sheep at his side,

This animal stable was home, for a time.

Angels announced the birth on that night,

To seekers and shepherds and sinners alike;

“All glory to God!” the heavenly host chimed,

“And peace on the earth to all of mankind.”

Beneath a bright star, the news was proclaimed,

Of God come to earth in the form of this babe;

A child who would grow and remake us anew,

And cover the sins of me and of you.

On the morning of Christmas, the Prince of Peace came,

To reconcile souls with their Maker, again;

God with us, Emmanuel, forever to dwell,

On the morning of Christmas, and all year as well!

May the true light of Christmas find its home in your heart today – Merry Christmas!

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Life Notes

Original Love

God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Romans 5:5b

The essence of Emmanuel is love, and love manifests in relationships. Through the birth of Jesus, God chose to be in relationship, physically, with the people of the time. Today, God chooses to be in relationship with us, spiritually. God reaches to us, but until we reach back and accept God’s invitation, there can be no relationship. At the point of our reciprocating, we come to know, recognize, and respond to God’s favor. Otherwise, God’s love is like a radio wave being transmitted, but not received. God speaks, but the message is not heard.

On this Christmas Eve, I wish to share a song of Love-come-to-earth. You can listen to it on my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. Go to the “Music” page, select “Songs of Christmas,” and click on “The Love That You Are.” Here are the lyrics:

The Love That You Are 

On this night, in the holy silence

Bright star light, pierce the deepest, darkest heart

With the Love that you are… 

Baby’s cry, from a lowly manger

Brand new life, come this night to save us all,

With the Love that you are… 

Holy Savior, Prince of Peace

Love incarnate, sin redeemed. 

Emmanuel, our Messiah

Here on earth to dwell, with a new life to impart,

From the Love that you are… 

Holy Savior, Prince of Peace

Love incarnate, sin redeemed. 

On this night, in the holy silence

Bright star light, pierce the deepest, darkest heart

With the Love that you are,

With the Love that you are.

This Christmas, may you fall into a relationship with Love: Emmanuel – God with us; God with you! That relationship is where true love originates.

Merry Christmas!

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Life Notes

Broken Hearts are Roomier

Then it was that, broken in spirit, he began to lose much of his arrogance and to come to his senses…    2 Maccabees 9:11a

Don’t look now, but Christmas time is here. The season that is supposed to be about new birth, fresh starts, hope, peace, love, and joy too often manifests differently. At least it does if we are not intentional about keeping the annual Christmas chaos at bay. What often happens to me is I give in to the pressures of buying gifts, decorating the house, and attending every party possible. These should be joyful activities; but when overdone, they become burdensome. Before long, the stress of unmet expectations has me exhausted, miserable, and ready for the season to be over – often before it has truly begun. There is not room in my life for the Christmas clutter and for preparing my heart to receive the Christ child. I do poorly trying to do both, so I feel it best to choose one and let the other have whatever space remains. Granted, with two grown children, it is easier to choose the Christ child than it was some years ago.

The problem originates in the limits on our time, money, and heart-space. We can only fit so much into our days, only spend so many dollars, and only give so much of ourselves. At some point, there is no more space in our schedule, our budget, or our heart. When we reach that point, something must break, and I suggest it be our hearts. I am not recommending a literal breaking of the heart itself, but a breaking – a reassessment – of what we consider of primary importance in this season. Our heart, in this metaphor, represents our highest priorities. Why should we be upset if we do not meet someone else’s unreasonable expectation? Is that really our problem? Why would we place similar expectations upon ourselves? When we break something unnecessary out of our heart space, we immediately make room for something else. We must be careful, however, that we do not choose another shallow, poorly screened lover for that now-open space. Being discerning is appropriate whenever we allow something inside of us.

I do not know anyone who claims to have ample time for self-reflection and study of the deeper meanings of Christmas and the impact the season should have on us. When we break our hearts away from unrealistic and unproductive pressures, I suggest filling that space with prayer and meditation. My new book, Uncovering God in Christmas, is intended to help (see details below). In her song Coming Around Again, Carly Simon sings: “So don’t mind if I fall apart, there’s more room in a broken heart.” Open a space for the Christ child this season. Allow that Holy Presence to change you from within by making room for the new birth. It will be the best gift you receive this Christmas!

Come home to church this Sunday. Fall apart, come broken, and come back to Christmas.

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An Epic Epiphany

 In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Ephesians 3:5-6

According to the Christian calendar, Epiphany occurs on January 6. It is a barely-noticeable speed bump lying just west of the mountain-of-our-own-making known as Christmas. Particularly in the United States, January 6 holds little more relevance than any other non-holiday. In other Christian cultures, however, Epiphany is the day Christmas is celebrated, complete with presents, food, friends, and family. All Christians recognize December 25 as the day of Jesus’ birth, but January 6 – the 12th Day of Christmas – is the day Jesus is revealed to us as the manifestation of God. It signifies the coming of the Wise Men from foreign lands to pay homage to this baby King. The Epiphany also celebrates that Jesus came not only for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles – the non-Jews, meaning us. The joy of Epiphany, then, is not that the baby was born, but that the baby was revealed as God-with-us, Emmanuel.

The dictionary definition of epiphany is a manifestation. We often use the term in the context of a sudden realization or understanding. For example, I recently told a friend that I had had an epiphany about fasting – that fasting was not just about giving something up, but about giving something up that would regularly remind me about something else of importance. This was an intellectual clarification of what had formerly been less clear to me. The birth of Jesus, however, was real, meaning he came in the flesh to be seen, heard, and touched. He was not just a vague concept, an intellectual creation, or some futuristic projection. God took on a human body and walked the earth as one of us.

The Christian season of Epiphany runs from January 6 through Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent. Epiphany provides an opportunity for us to ponder the meaning of God-manifest among us. If we were to invite Jesus to dinner, or to ride with us to work, or to live in our spare bedroom, what would change in our lives? If Jesus were to manifest himself into every moment of our every day, how would we be different? Even though Jesus is no longer on the earth physically, he is still present in the form of the Holy Spirit, which is always with us. Therefore, this season invites us not only to ponder God-with-us, but also to acknowledge that God is, indeed, with us and to live accordingly. God coming to earth in the person of Jesus was an epiphany of epic proportion. If we only celebrate the birth without allowing the manifestation to change us, we pack Jesus into storage with the rest of our Christmas decorations. Jesus becomes an ornament that we take out once a year and say, “Oh, what a beautiful baby!” Certainly, the baby is beautiful; but the baby wants to grow up – within us.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find your own epiphany with Christ.

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