19 May 2018
07 March 2018
22 December 2017
20 December 2016
So God imparts to human hearts / The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, / But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still, / The dear Christ enters in.
25 December 2014
21 December 2011
THE CATTLE ARE LOWING, the Baby awakes. But little Lord Jesus no crying He makes. Wait a second! That line in the second verse of the beloved carol, “Away in a Manger,” has irked me for years. Of course, it has not been enough to stop me from singing it at Christmas Eve services or at times of caroling around the piano or even at bedtimes with the children (during, potentially, any month of the year, not just December!). But the pebble of irritation about the manger scene has proven to be just enough to re-open the Christmas narrative and see if such a detail is explicitly mentioned or implicitly inferred anywhere. Did little Lord Jesus, really, no crying make?
Verdict—Mary’s first delivery was a normal, healthy delivery in every way, which leads me to conclude that there must have been plenty of crying to go around! Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and eventually the wise men—pass the Kleenex® box around. Can angels cry? Well, if they can they too might have joyfully blubbered with the rest of them! “I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
Not in 2011 … nor, for the record, in 2012(!) … but Shellie and I have made our rounds through the obstetrics ward at the hospital five wonderful times in the last 14¾ years. We have concurred that it would not be in the least bit serene, or happy, or joyful to have a baby who was not crying in the first moments of life. There is nothing in the Christmas account in Scripture that even remotely suggests that Mary’s delivery was any different than any other woman’s delivery or that Jesus’ birth was anything different than any other baby’s birth. Certainly, Mary and Jesus were unique in ways that beg for more study and more dialogue, but the events of that night were entirely … and dare I say … blessedly ordinary.
I am not trying to spar with poetic license written into “Away in a Manger.” Actually and tangentially, I found something else noteworthy in the relatively few verses allotted to Jesus’ birth in the Bible; something that I might have missed if it were not for my borderline compulsive urge to fact-check traditional Christmas carols. This year I noticed an amazing absence of anything out of the ordinary with Jesus’ actual birthday. His birth infused blessing into uneventfulness.
Perhaps you are like us in this regard, too often we give thanks for the brushes with the supernatural; those macro- or micro-deliverances that could only be explained after-the-fact by a providentially attentive Almighty God who graciously scrutinizes our paths. But I don’t know if I have ever before thought of the blessing of the ordinary. Granted, on that first Christmas there are many elements of sheer drama and utter terror, where the so-called experts were tongue-tied and the so-called bumpkins were silver-tongued. We would be the last to remove, even remotely, the supernatural from the Incarnation. But on that night, with that couple, in that stall, with that feeding trough nothing extraordinary happened. On the nearby hillside where the shepherds were guarding their flocks at night, there were supernatural fireworks going off. In the far-away sand where the Magi were studying the night-sky, there were miraculous “dots” being connected. But in the stable behind the inn which had no room for the King-in-disguise there was the blessing of uneventfulness.
Mary, for sure, had unanesthetized labor-pains throughout her delivery. Joseph, for sure, wished there was someone else present who had actually delivered a baby before; or at least someone who could advise him about basic female anatomy since he and Mary had not seen each other in that way yet. Not to belabor the point (pun intended!), but there was blood and fluid and after-birth and the ubiquitous clumsiness of figuring out how to feed a baby as a first-time mom. And, in my imagination, crying must have been generously exercised—before, during, and after the birth.
For Mary and Joseph all the miracles—and there were many—happened before and then after this very ordinary birth. The conception, of course, was perhaps the greatest miracle of all. The marriage that was not severed when Joseph discovered the news of Mary’s pregnancy without his (or any male’s) participation—this was a miracle that must not slip past our careful attention. Mary’s miraculous welcome received from her relative, Elizabeth, who was also miraculously pregnant. Jesus’ fantastic in utero greeting from his in utero cousin, John (the Baptist), was also miraculous. Time prevents a full treatment of the miracles that light up the narrative: the shepherds, the angels, the Christmas Star that apparently moved as needed to guide the wise men to Jesus, the escape from the massacre at Bethlehem, the dreams given to Joseph several times along the way, the name selected for the Savior, the city where the birth took place, even the timing of the tax requirement issued by Quirinius the Roman governor of Palestine at the time.
But that night, away in a manger, God steeped sublime dignity into the ordinary by allowing His Son to be birthed in exactly the same way all humans are birthed. God infused supernatural guidance and perseverance—incognito—into the otherwise uneventfulness of Christmas. This is the Christmas meditation that I stumbled across while looking for another thing altogether—what so often feels like God’s distance when it takes our every ounce of energy just to keep “treading water” in the ordinary, just trying to make it, just waiting for the time to punch out for the weekend … what often seems like God’s disinterest or even disapproval in our achingly long stretches of silence and uneventfulness … might actually be the times when God is nearest of all. God is not always found in the euphoria of the phenomenal, or in the serenity of the mystical. Sometimes—and arguably most times—God is found in the ordinary manger straw that is intentionally hidden in the alley behind the neon “no vacancy” sign, underneath the pain, awash with salty tears on the clumsy side of life when we think no one is paying any attention at all. Pass the Kleenex® box—for what seems to be the most ordinary may be, in fact, our front row seat for the most extraordinary thing of all: God came near.
14 December 2010
‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse / The stockings were hung by the chimney with care / In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there / The children were nestled all snug in their beds / While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads / And mamma in her ‘kerchief and I in my cap / Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap …
These famous American verses were originally published in 1823 anonymously as “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore—friend of Washington Irving—also attributed by some to Henry Livingston, Jr.). The poem, now culturally known as “The Night Before Christmas,” is arguably the most well-known American verse of all. But my eyes … my brain … my shoulders … my back … my feet … my entire material and immaterial being gets to lines 7 & 8 and then stops! Mamma and I settling down “for a long winter’s nap.”
Oh yes, the December rush is fully upon us all and it is only the second weekend in the month. Egad! All I want for Christmas is that “long winter’s nap”; a nap which “that lively old elf” actually interrupted in the poem … thanks for nothing, you imp! J I distinctly remember hearing these lines as a child and somehow connecting a long winter’s nap with hibernation somewhat like a bear’s—wow, that’s a long sleep, I used to think. Three decades later I don’t think that “hibernation” seems long in the slightest. It sounds just about right for December.
Astride the profound fatigue that finds the children all “nestled all snug in the beds” in the other room while “mamma in her ‘kerchief and I in my cap” still shuffling around long after bedtime there is a genuine aching for the material and immaterial rest we have in Christ. While “visions of sugar-plums dance” in the children’s dreams, my vision scans the horizon for the Christ who said, “It is finished!”
How can it be finished when there is still so much left to do? Ah yes, that is the creaturely way of looking at it—but the rest of Christ remains accessible through faith all the while. It is an active rest; a mobile rest even a sweaty rest in the middle of laboring with Christ. It is a rest that believes all the work left to be done is being done by God who now moves through His spiritually enabled people—the church. It is already all done and somehow not yet all “tied off.” And so December finds us still cemented to time and space and linear chronology, but the rest of Christ is real and it is here and it is exactly what this “decembered” papa in his night-cap needs to remember.