a monthly devotional journal
Issue No. 61
The real meaning of Christmas, like so many other things in this age of relativism, has been left up to the individual. In a world in which there are few absolutes, Christmas is up for grabs.
Hollywood would have us believe that the meaning of Christmas is a roster of block-buster movies intended to wow and entertain theatre-goers. Wall Street and the giants of commerce would have us believe that Christmas is the opportunity to make all the money that will cover their losses during the rest of the year; therefore, to them, Christmas is when we are reminded of all those things without which we cannot live even one more day.
Local news programs and charities want us to think that the real meaning of Christmas is brotherly love, charity, giving, and caring about each other. For them, Christmas is when the people who have, give to those who haven't.
On a certain level, they are all correct. There is nothing inherently wrong about entertainment, making money or, of course, giving things to the needy.
But Christmas has become something more than what it really is. Like a squalling, demanding brat whose body has quickly outgrown his little playsuit, the Christmas of our time has outgrown its original intent. The holiday has become something bursting at the seams, an annual occurrence in which every hope, every expectation, every escape from disappointment is invested. Christmas has become the climax to our year--the bright celebration meant to erase from our memory every sad moment that has come into our lives during the previous eleven months. If Christmas turns out to be everything we expect, we declare it to have been a good year; if Christmas is a disappointment, our year has been something less than it should have been.
Because of this, people today can't wait to celebrate the yuletide. Houses are now draped in brilliant, multi-colored sparkles well before Thanksgiving--that envious second cousin in the family of holidays, now just a sad, impatient belch standing in the way of its more grand, and better-dressed, relation. Christmas decorations line the aisles of K-Mart and Target long before the ghouls of Halloween have finally been put out of our misery.
The problem is not so much that something has been left out of Christmas, but that too much has been put in. The occasion of Christmas--literally, the 'Mass of Christ'--has become cluttered with so many events, so much eye-candy, so many things that have nothing to do with the day commemorated, that we can no longer make contact with--or even find amidst the chaff--the person at its center: the Christ child.
Christmas can be a dismal thing without the person of Christ. The first Christmas I ever spent away from home and family has always represented for me what Christmas is like when it is spent out of touch with the One whose birth it is meant to celebrate ...
The fresh-faced lad--just out of high school and bootcamp, too young to vote or do much of anything but serve his country--stood staring out the darkened barracks window. The huge building was quiet with a heavy stillness that only fed the empty melancholy in his heart.
Earlier in the day the barracks had slowly emptied out, a man at a time, as those fortunate enough to have family or friends nearby took off for a day or two celebration. The boy wondered whether they had left to celebrate Christmas--or to celebrate a few days away from the Navy. He guessed that it was a little of both.
One man at a time the building, with its endless rows of 6-man cubicles, had lost most of its population, until finally the only signs of life heard were the muffled echoes of rock-and-roll played from a few portable cassette players.
A chill hung over the Navy School of Music as early dusk draped itself across the Amphibious Base. The east coast was a long way from Iowa, and right now the boy felt as if he were on the moon. So this is it, he thought. "Well, ... Merry Christmas," he said bitterly to the empty cubicle.
For all of his life, the holiday had been a time for family and church. Standing there, staring blankly into the glass that reflected back his reflection, he recalled childhood Christmases in the old church of hardwood floors and even harder wood pews. He remembered standing before the Christmas Eve congregation, one of several in the Children's Choir perched precariously atop rickety risers, singing the simple carols that told of the baby Jesus in the stall. Lights were kept low, and the scent of burning candles brought a joyous--even mysterious--solemnity to the occasion.
After the service there would be packages of candy distributed to the kids, and at home, oyster and potato soups, and the privilege of opening just one small gift before heading off to his bed.
Those times now seemed a million miles away as the boy listened to the silence of Christmas Eve spent alone.
Then the silence was broken by an announcement over the loudspeaker: All those remaining behind were to get their instruments and board the bus parked outside. They were to spend the evening playing carols around the base.
It was a dark humor that pervaded the interior of the bus; sullen, depressed sailors scrunched down into the collars of their pea coats, keeping their mouthpieces warm inside their pockets. After awhile the routine became monotonous: file off the bus in front of some high-ranking officer's quarters; get the selection to play from the leader; raise the cold instrument to the lips, and make a half-hearted attempt to sound jolly for a few minutes; file back onto the bus, then do it all over again.
Eventually, at one house their playing was rewarded. The line officer whose home had just been serenaded, emerged to donate a full bottle of whiskey to the band. Expressions of gratitude were mumbled, and the band members retired to the bus.
On the way to the next stop, the bottle was passed around, and eventually made it to the boy from Iowa. Every Christmas before it had been hot chocolate and potato soup offered to him; now it was bourbon whiskey. After a few seconds pause, however, he decided that whiskey--not steaming cocoa--was somehow more appropriate to this Christmas Eve, and he took a swig.
The liquor burned on the way down, but it failed to remove the chill of his melancholy. As he huddled back into his pea coat, he muttered to himself, "So ... Merry Christmas," and he passed the bottle along to the next guy.
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6
Jesus Christ was born on earth so that He might die for our sins. He died for our sins so that we might have eternal life with the Father in heaven. His incarnation, then, was the beginning of our forever.
Some Christians quarrel with the heritage or terminology of our common "Christmas" holiday and, as a result, choose to ignore it. The venerated English preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon held to such a position.
"We do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas. First, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it. And second, because we find no scriptural warrant for observing any day as the birthday of the Savior. Consequently, its observance is a superstition."
While I am loathe to disagree with the late, great Puritan pastor and writer, I can imagine no great sin in celebrating the moment at which my Salvation showed Himself to mankind. We can certainly take issue with the layering on of tradition, superstitious calendar-watching, and almost idolatrous high-holiness; we can detest the rabid commercialism that smothers December 25th of each year. But were we to disregard totally the remembrance, we would be ignoring an important part of Christ's gospel. For without His physical death, we could not enjoy eternity with the Father, and without His physical birth, He could not have died.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16
But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Galatians 4:4-5
I imagine that if God had intended for us to disregard the event of Christ's earthly birth, then the early chapters of Matthew and Luke would not have dwelt on it so. Perhaps they would have begun much like the gospel of Mark, with John's baptism of Jesus, or the gospel of John, with the more mystical beginnings of the Son of God.
Instead, the gospels of Matthew and Luke include rather detailed narratives of the night He was born (Luke) and the proceeding days in Bethlehem (Matthew), describing the birth itself, as well as the subsequent visits of the shepherds and magi. Here is the evidence that God would have us remember the occasion--indeed, to approach with reverence and to consider for awhile this first night, when Jehovah made physical contact with mankind.
He would have us feel the lonely chill of the shepherds' night, inhale the acrid musk of the hay that became the infant's bed, to understand the hearts of His earthly parents, and to experience the reverent adoration of a group of strangers who knew in their hearts that this child was, truly, God.
"The true Christian religion ... does not begin at the top, as all other religions do; it begins at the bottom. You must run directly to the manger and the mother's womb, embrace this Infant and Virgin's Child in your arms, and look at Him--born, being nursed, growing up, going about in human society, teaching, dying, rising again, ascending above all the heavens, and having authority over all things." Martin Luther
Like a great wheel with spokes radiating out from its hub, any celebration of what we call Christmas--the night the Son of God was incarnated--must focus upon the child and God's purpose in revealing Him to mankind.
Unto us a son is given ...
It's not necessary, for the sake of righteousness, for us to ignore the celebration of Christmas, nor is it necessary to conduct wholesale removal of all pagan-oriented traditions. An unholy origin can be found for virtually any Christmas tradition practiced in the most orthodox Christian homes. Yet the true test for any tradition is not what it meant hundreds of years ago, but what it means in our hearts today.
"I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Every one there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes." C.S. Lewis
It is entirely appropriate for us to give gifts on the occasion of Christ's birth, since the practice was initiated by God from the beginning. As we let our gaze rest upon the Christ child, we find there in His person all the compassionate generosity of the Father. Here we have the ultimate gift, the gift of eternal life through the sacrifice of His only Son.
Read the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22:1-19, and consider how this dramatic story foreshadows the sacrifice of Jesus.
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:9-10
It is impossible to remove the cross from the manger; the shadow of Christ's death darkens perceptibly the moment of His birth. But this shadow does not remove the joy, the thanksgiving, from the moment; indeed, it is what supplies it! God's purpose in sending His Son was not for us to tickle the chin of a cute baby, to watch Him grow into manhood, then to watch Him stride off majestically into the sunset. He was sent as our gateway into eternity, and that would only happen if He sacrificially died.
It's true that one purpose behind the incarnation of the Son was to make tangible the 'humanity' of the Father. How easy it would be to see only the unapproachable holiness and righteousness of God, His all-powerful wrath, if we did not have Jesus to 'flesh Him out' for us.
But Jesus came to save us. That was the gift; not a baby, but salvation by way of the cross.
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. Ephes. 2:4-7
What are your reasons for exchanging gifts at Christmas? What do you think were God's reasons for giving the gift of His Son? In Ephesians, Paul says that it was because He loved us. But why would He love us?
The tradition of exchanging gifts also began at the Nativity, for when God gave the initial gift of His Son to the world, the magi represented the gratitude of the world in their adoration of the Child and the tangible gifts they brought.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. Matthew 2:1-2,9-11
The three kings of the story--or, more properly, magi (pronounced may-ji)--were apparently non-Jewish religious astrologers from Persia or Arabia who had inferred the birth of a Jewish king from astronomical observations and the ancient Jewish texts. What is remarkable is not their curiosity, which would have been part and parcel of their occupation, but the reverence with which they approached both the mission and its goal.
These men were not part of the system. They had no religious connection to the birth of Christ--neither from a Jewish or, certainly, gentile perspective. Neither did they have a cynical political reason for seeking out, then showering favor upon such humble folk as Jesus and His parents. On the contrary, what drove these men to Bethlehem could only have been a search for truth--and when they found it, they worshipped it.
Herodotus (1. 101, 132)
Isaiah 49:7; 60:6
Daniel 1:20; 2:27; 5:15
Acts 8:9; 13:6,8
The narrative by Matthew is a curious inversion, a rotated glance into reality--as if the story were being played out behind Alice's looking glass. It would be, that is, were we to remove the supernatural element. These were men of standing, of reputation. Why would they have displayed such reverence toward a peasant girl's child? While it was not uncommon for visitors in the orient to proffer gifts, these would normally have been for someone considered a superior. Why would the magi have considered Jesus a superior?
There is almost a cinematic feeling to this episode in which three strangers travel from a distant land to kneel before a new and foreign king. It is as if Jesus, while still in His mother's womb, exerted some powerful force that drew the wise men to where He would be. Traveling possibly hundreds of miles, across desert and alien terrain, they came in search of someone of whom only the stars and prophetic texts spoke.
What was their purpose? Beyond simply confirming their quest, what was their purpose in coming to the child Jesus?
To give. O, but to give so much more than what they held in their hands. They came to give what they held in their hearts. It was their worship that became the true exchange for God's precious gift of salvation.
And that is to be our most precious Christmas gift: our adoration of the One who has given us life. Every year--indeed, every day--we exchange gifts with the Father. He, out of His gracious heart, gives us eternal life with Him through the blood of His Son. In exchange we, out of a grateful heart, give in return, our eternal devotion and praise.
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Romans 5:1-2
How can you, personally, incorporate the adoration of Christ into your exchanging of Christmas gifts with others?
We must keep our eyes on Jesus Christ. We must resolve to understand Him, to know Him intimately. Christmas must focus upon the person of Christ. Christmas trees and presents and miniature Nativity sets mean nothing without the person of Jesus in attendance.
His birth in Bethlehem meant that we--all of us, regardless our bloodline, heritage or nationality--would have the opportunity to enjoy eternity with Him.
But it is only an opportunity; the decision is still ours. No one--not even the brother of Jesus Himself--gains the privilege without making the choice ...
THE TIME: 39 days after the Resurrection
THE PLACE: Nazareth
THE CHARACTERS: Jesus Christ; James, son of Joseph
[Enter JAMES. He is in a state of emotional confusion. From his mother, Mary, he had learned of the lightning-quick events which had culminated in the death of his brother, Jesus. In sorrow and mental disarray he had left Jerusalem, returned to Nazareth and the carpentry business he had continued after the death of Joseph and the departure, three years earlier, of Jesus. Then had come word of the Resurrection. This news dispelled none of his sorrow and confusion. It occurred to him that this rumor could be nothing more than a plot by the enemies of his brother to discredit the good He had accomplished. Or, at the very least, a rumor begun by the followers of Jesus to salvage some credibility after His untimely death. And neither explanation comforts James, who seeks to erase the horrible episode from his memory by attacking his work with a renewed--almost frantic--vigor.
JAMES enters carrying carpentry tools. On stage is a rude support, upon which rests a roughly formed plank of wood. JAMES immediately sets to working the piece of wood, shaping and smoothing.
Enter JESUS. There is a tranquility about Jesus that is set in marked contrast to the anxieties of James. This tranquility comes not only from the peace He has as the Son of God, but from the knowledge that His earthly trials are now over. No more pain, no more of humanity's sin. That is all behind Him. And with quiet expectation He anticipates His reunion with the Father.]
What can I do for you? Maybe a new table. A new bench? Need something repaired? We do the finest work in Nazareth.
I'm not here to buy.
Oh? What then?
I'm here to see James, son of Joseph and Mary.
With what purpose in mind?
To bid him farewell.
Seems to me it would make more sense to meet this person first, before bidding him farewell.
Oh, I've known James for many years.
Do I know you?
James was a precocious lad, always finding trouble under the feet of his father. Why, when he was all of six years old, he invoked the wrath of Joseph by cutting irregular grooves into the surface of a recently completed table.
You have the advantage, sir. Your memory serves you well, but I can't place you. Were you a neighbor in my youth?
I lived under your roof, James! (chuckling softly) You study me so. Examine me with your heart--not your eyes.
Then....it's.... true. But,....how......
Sit down, James.
I...I didn't think it could really be true.
You're touching me. It is really true.
I didn't believe. I thought it was just rumors.
What will it take, James? What will it take for you to believe?
You were my brother. For so many years that was all you were--my brother.
You saw my work. Wasn't that enough?
Even with my own eyes it was hard to believe. Our people had waited generations for the Messiah. How could I imagine the prophecy would be answered in my own home--by the older brother who taught me how to climb the sycamore tree?
Ah, the sycamore tree. Is it still there?
A little fatter, a little taller, but still there in front of the house.
How that poor tree was abused while we were growing up!
Now my children play in its branches. (happily) And now you've come back home. Where you belong--with your family.
I'm not here to stay. I've come to say good-bye.
You just got here! Surely your travels are over.
Yes, they are. I'm going home.
Home. (looking up) Home? (confused) This--this is your home.
Oh, James. You've always been such a stubborn man.
Our father's first born was more a dreamer than a worker. Somebody had to carry on when he died. And you know what they say about carpenters' wooden heads.
Do you still not see? (patiently) Do you not yet understand that your father, Joseph, was not my father?
Do you realize how... strange it feels to think of the person you grew up with....as the Son of God?
You've been a part of something that will never again be repeated. I know this is hard for you, but, you see, my home--my real home--is not here. When our mother gave birth to me.....it was not my beginning. It was only my entrance. (smiling) I've never had a beginning. I just always.......have been.
And so you just dropped by to remind me--to remind me of how little we have in common.
I love you, James. I wanted to see you one last time.
Why bother? Why come back just for that? It would have been better to leave things as they were. (with bitterness) Why couldn't you leave me happy in my ignorance?
And were you so happy? Happy thinking your older brother had been put to death on a Roman cross? Where is your happiness, James? In my death--or in my living?
But you can't be alive! You must be a spirit. In a while I'll wake up on the floor, in a pile of sawdust, and all this will be nothing more than a disturbing memory.
What's disturbing you is that I am alive. Your eyes tell you it's true; your heart tells you it's true. Your hands have touched my flesh! Was it cold? Did it have the chill of the grave?
No.....No...... (struggling; trying to make sense out of all this; after a long pause) Are you my....real brother?
Yes, I am your brother. (turning away) But I'm also every man's brother; I'm every woman's kin. (turning back to James) If they believe.
Then, I may be counted twice. And wherever this home of yours is, may the people there know that you have a brother who loves you. (embracing Jesus; continuing after their embrace) When will you......
Tomorrow, James. It will be tomorrow.
Oh, it's too soon.
Not for me. I've been away from my Father for thirty-three years. And I miss Him so.
Then take me with you. I'm not prepared to lose my brother again.
You can't go with me. But you'll not lose me, either. You have much work to do after I leave. You'll play an important role in the process I've begun. You'll see me again. We'll be together in my home. And it's now your home. Like me, your time here is but for a moment; your happiness here is passing. Our life is with the Father.
And the Father will accept me, too, in your home?
You, too, are now His child. (as they exit) And that makes you more my brother than you've ever been before!
Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 2 Cor. 9:15
"What can possibly make a gift indescribable? Since all human presents are describable, it is clear that the only thing that can make a gift indescribable is that it is more than human. It has to have something of God mixed with it. And, of course, that was precisely Paul's thinking when he penned 2 Corinthians 9:15. He had been thinking of very human gifts: the gifts of the Corinthians to the poor in Jerusalem. But the subject of giving had turned his mind to God and the gift of Christ to His people, which is the greatest of all possible gifts, and Paul ended his comments by referring to that divine bounty." James Montgomery Boice
What does God's gift really mean to you? What do you intend to do with this gift, now that it's yours?
Every aspect of our Christmas has to contain some part of the Savior. Otherwise, it is just another pagan holiday.
At Christmas time we all celebrate something. For some, it is the chance to spread good cheer and happiness; it is a time for generosity and compassion. For some, it is a time for office parties, small trays of cookies or candy, and sharing bottles of spirits. For many, it is a chance to receive gifts from friends and family, as well as to give.
For others, the celebration is a solitary vigil filled with the pain of loneliness--something grabbing in the pit of the stomach, an awful memory that comes crying back into the consciousness.
But what we celebrate at Christmas is so much more than just another excuse for a party--so much more than tinsel and garlands and electric lights on a harvested evergreen. And the only pain that should be present is the pain of realization when one has no relationship with the Child at its center.
The late Corrie ten Boom seems to wrap the whole thing up nicely for us.
"Who can add to Christmas? The perfect motive is that God so loved the world. The perfect gift is that He gave His only Son. The only requirement is to believe in Him. The reward of faith is that you shall have everlasting life."
There He is--the perfect gift--lying in the manger. What will you bring?
Issue No. 61
[1.] Selah: No one really knows what the word 'selah' means, but many are of the opinion it was used in the Psalms to suggest a pause--a point at which the reader or singer would pause to reflect on what had just been said. And that is how it is being used in Aspects. The word 'selah' has been used to designate a moment where the reader might pause to reflect, and to consider the accompanying text, quotation, Scripture passage(s) or hymn. (return to footnote 1)
[2.] "Neither the noun 'incarnation' nor the adjective 'incarnate' is biblical, but the Greek equivalent of Lat. in carne (en sarki, 'in flesh') is found in some important NT statements about the person and work of Jesus Christ: 1 Timothy 3:16, 1 John 4:2, 2 John 7, Col. 1:22, Romans 8:3, 1 Peter 3:18, 4:1. All these texts are enforcing from different angles the same truth: that it was precisely by coming and dying 'in the flesh' that Christ secured our salvation. Theology calls his coming the incarnation, and his dying the atonement." (New Bible Dictionary, 2nd Edition (Tyndale, 1984), p.510) (return to footnote 2)
[3.] Ibid., p722. (return to footnote 3)
[4.] Going Home, Copyright (c) 1986, 1991, 1995 David S. Lampel, His Company. (return to footnote 4)
[5.] James Montgomery Boice, The Christ of Christmas (Moody Press, 1983), p119. (return to footnote 5)
[6.] Corrie ten Boom in "Each New Day". (return to footnote 6)
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