Photo: by Janet Small – Nativity Arrangement by Our Grandchildren
Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. (Psalm 22.9-10)
I’ve had a lot of wonderful Christmas’s. There are the childhood memories of family celebrations. Janet and I were married 10 days before Christmas. We’ve had 40 years of celebrating with our children and grandchildren. We’ve even spent a Christmas Day in Bethlehem standing within feet of where Jesus was born. (Coincidentally, my dad also spent a Christmas Day in Bethlehem during World War II.)
It was 75 and sunny that day that day in the West Bank as we drove by the Star & Bucks coffee shop in downtown Bethlehem. It was hardly the “Bleak Midwinter” we hear about in the Christmas Song or the “Bleak Midwinter” in pre-climate change “Minn-a-soda” where I was raised.
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;1
In my family of origin, Christmas Eve was the reference point for Christmas celebrations. There was an abundance of presents, children and grandchildren, and nieces and nephews. Christmas Eve also came with an abundance of conflict, fighting, competition, hurt feelings, temper tantrums, and scheming. This was mostly from the adults.
In this context is my favorite childhood Christmas memory. It was the afternoon of Christmas Eve. I went ice-skating for several hours. My friends were already celebrating or traveling, so I went alone — or should I say in solitude. I pretty much had the rink and chalet to myself. It was snowing.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter
A few blocks away was a public nativity scene. Off to the side was a simple message: Wise Men Still Seek Him. While there were a few scattered attempts to get us to church as kids, most of my theology came from TV and Christmas songs. Yet this nativity scene fascinated me.
Why? Because I believed this story.
Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak midwinter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
Enough for Him, Whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, Whom Angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Angels and Archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But only his Mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.
Without being formally taught, I already had a faith in Jesus Christ. But how does this happen? How did I get to this faith with very limited and often erroneous teaching with a strong dose of myth, tradition, sentimentalism, and fairy tales? The Gospel of John explains how: Jesus reveals himself.
- “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
- “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
- “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
I was about eleven years old and I already knew this Light. Why? Because he made himself “visible” to me (John 1.18). Later in life I connected with him at a deeper level, but as a child, I didn’t know what to do with this light. So I did what I could. I reserved a place in my heart and life for him.
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.
The wise may still seek him according to the nativity scene, but there is something even more profound: He came to seek me! He found a way to reach me apart from the church, theological training, or good works. This is the part many miss about Christianity. It’s the complete acceptance by Jesus Christ of who we are — just as we are. Once we embrace our status that “We are loved”, it opens up new possibilities and we find the magic in Christmas.
1In the Bleak Midwinter. Poem by Christina Rossetti and later turned into a Christmas Carol by Gustav Holst. Information and poem formatting provided by Wikipedia
2 The Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.