An old man takes a worn hardcover book off the shelf. He handles the volume gently, careful not to disturb the fragile binding, while returning to his favorite chair, glasses perched on his nose. As he slowly turns the yellowed pages, his eyes rest on the grandchildren who lean in with anticipation. Behind them a fire crackles in the hearth.
It’s less than two weeks until Christmas, but at Grandpa’s house, these words usher in the official beginning of the season. “Let me tell you a story.” They know the story, but they want to hear it again.
“In Jesus we see the light that dawned and has overcome the darkness.”
And so he begins a December ritual. Each day Grandpa unfolds another piece of the Christmas story. An angel. A scared young Jewish girl. A bewildered fiancé. More angels. Wise men. The kings from the East. The wicked Herod. The shepherd boys in the field. The innkeeper. Prophets and princes, paupers and philosophers, wise men and wanderers.
The kids relish these moments every year. Sure, they love shopping and wrapping presents and rehearsing for church plays, but these moments in front of the fire with Grandpa—this is the heart of Christmas.
Does this rekindle any holiday memories for you? Or perhaps you have your own, equally vivid, recollections of childhood Christmases. For me, three pictures come flooding back every December. I think of my father reading, every Christmas Eve, out of Luke 2. To this day, when I hear the King James Version, I can picture my dad, in a recliner, reading to us, his voice steady and sure. I also think of Christmas Eve at our church at eleven o’clock.
Usually the snow would be gently falling in our Chicago suburb. We’d arrive in our best outfits—a suit and tie for me—and gather and sing Christmas carols.
Our pastor would remind us, in a short homily, of why Jesus came. We’d light candles and sing “Silent Night.” There was something about this moment every year that evoked warmth and light and hope.
Lastly, I think of that most commercial of holiday traditions gone by: the Sears Wish Book. Before the age of the internet, before you could do your Christmas shopping on Amazon, before Facebook and a million email newsletters delivered all the best shopping bargains, the hefty Sears catalogue, nicknamed the Wish Book, arrived at our house, its pages filled with gifts to stir a boy’s longing. The arrival of this treasure was met by joy and followed by earnest searching, dog-earing of pages, and a thousand subtle hints in hopes that my parents would finally, this year, place a rock tumbler under the tree.
I know Christmas brings different memories for different people. For some, the music and the lights and the parties communicate a profound melancholy. Christmas means broken family memories, the loss of loved ones, or aching loneliness. I wonder what your story is this Christmas.
It could be that, like Andy Williams, you think this is the most wonderful time of year; or, like Merle Haggard, you are just trying to make it through December. Or perhaps you are somewhere in between. What I do want you to know, as you begin the journey toward Christmas, is that this season is an opportunity to bring both our joys and our sorrows, our heaviness and our happiness to the One whose miraculous life birthed this season. The good news for both Christmas carolers and Christmas cranks (and everyone in between) is that Jesus came to bring joy to ordinary people like you and me.
When you crack open the Christmas story, you’ll find it populated by now-familiar characters. Some, like Mary, have loomed large on the pages of church history. Others, like Joseph, seem to fade into the background. And still others, like Simeon and Anna, are obscure figures, bit players whom the gospel writers insisted on including in their accounts.
This Christmas, I’d like to invite you to explore with me the lives of each of those people we see around our nativity sets, huddled around the manger and making their cameo appearances in the drama of God made flesh. We should become familiar with them not because their lives are the point of the story, but because their lives, like our own, point ultimately to the one character whose birth changed the world: Jesus Christ. He is the light that illuminates their lives and, if we believe, can illuminate our own.
God’s plan was to create a world of beauty and wonder and artistry, a world that He originally created for us, His creatures. He “saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:31). But something terrible happened. Humans rebelled against their Creator and thus brought something into the world that marred God’s creation and snuffed out His light. Sin. This is why the world has light, but also is shadowed by darkness and despair.
“The enemy thought he had defeated God, but in the opening pages of Genesis, God revealed His plan to redeem mankind again and bring light into a darkened world.”
But thankfully the story doesn’t end with darkness, but with the invasion of light. The enemy thought he had defeated God, but in the opening pages of Genesis, God revealed His plan to redeem mankind again and bring light into a darkened world.
From the fall in the garden down through the ages, God promised His people that He would send a Messiah, a Redeemer who would be that Light, not only to the Jewish people, whom He had called out to be a light, but also to the entire world. The prophet Isaiah spoke of this day:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. (Isa. 9:2)
But centuries passed. God’s chosen people Israel continued down a path of disobedience and failure. They were captured by other nations and scattered. But God’s promises of a Messiah still held true.
Then, after four hundred years of silence, God’s plan of redemption began to unfold. He first appeared to Zechariah and to Elizabeth and promised them a son in their old age. The angel said that their son, John the Baptist, would be a forerunner, someone who wasn’t the light, but would reflect the light of the Messiah.
Then the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary first and then to Joseph and shared the news that the Messiah would indeed be born—of the Virgin Mary.
You see, we need for Christmas to be more than just sentiment and gifts and family gatherings. What we truly need is what Christmas provides, beyond good feelings and songs we know by heart. I like what theologian Fleming Rutledge says in her book Advent:
We can send Christmas cards about love and peace all we want, but the human race is utterly incapable of turning itself around. The children who go to see The Nutcracker grow up to be victims of disappointment just like all the rest of us. There is no magical kingdom anywhere.
In a world no better and no worse than this one, at another time and in another place, where men and women struggled against poverty and disease and disillusionment as we do, in a time when moments of hope and happiness and peace were just as delusory and fugitive as they are today, Saint Luke the Evangelist wrote a magical story.
The story Luke (and Matthew and John and Isaiah and others) told is that this baby in the manger was no ordinary child. Jesus Christ was both God and Man in the flesh. And He would be a light not only for the Jewish people, but a Light for everyone. The world is depressingly dark these days—as it was on that first Christmas. But in Jesus, we see the light that dawned and has overcome the darkness.
“In Jesus we see the light that dawned and has overcome the darkness.”
And there is something wondrous, really, about the people who make up the story of Jesus’ birth, isn’t there? Something wonderfully ordinary about each of them. Jesus, we see, didn’t end God’s seeming four hundred-year silence by being born in a Roman palace or Herod’s court. The Holy Spirit didn’t choose aristocrats or princes to bear, announce, and celebrate the coming of the long-promised Messiah. I like what Martin Luther says about the ordinariness:
Who, then, are those to whom this joyful news is to be proclaimed? Those who are faint-hearted and feel the burden of their sins, like the shepherds, to whom the angels proclaim the message, letting the great lords in Jerusalem, who do not accept it, go on sleeping.
As you reflect on Christmas this year, I invite you to look afresh at the story of Jesus as told through the lives of those who found their way to the manger, who intersect with the story we tell ourselves every year around fireplaces, in auditoriums, and in hidden places around the world.
by Daniel Darling
Learn Something New This Christmas We hate to admit it, but after years, sometimes even decades, of reading the same Luke 2 story of Christmas,...
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