Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Merry Christmas!

Thank you for joining me this Advent season! There are so many more Advent books I could have covered, but maybe I'll continue that again next year.

Merry Christmas! Christ is born!

Monday, December 23, 2019

Voices from Bethlehem: Two Stories from Along the Way

He was no ordinary child. Yet we mold and we carve, shaping His likeness as a baby small enough to fit into a Nativity-set manger. That is where many young children encounter Him for the first time. Some even lift Him from the manger bed and cherish Him as his own.

In her article, Baby Jesus, Rachel Joy Welcher reflections, “through the incarnation, a baby can feel kinship with Christ. . . Real children looked Jesus in the face when he was also a child. Babies sitting together on the ground. God among us.” (from ) 

So much more so for the adults who encountered Christ along the way to Bethlehem. Whether they knew it or not, there lives were to be forever changed. How could they not shout out, in the face of such glory—baby-sized though He may be.

There are two pictures books I read this week that take on this approach. Each page records the perspective of a different character in the Christmas story. Each character performs a soliloquy in response to God’s incarnation.

The first book is Nikki Grimes’ Voices of Christmas, illustrated by Eric Velazquez. At the top of each page curves a line of Scripture introducing each character. We meet Gabriel, Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, a neighbor, the Innkeeper, a shepherd, Gaspar, Herod, Melchior, Simeon, Anna, Balthasar, and you… the reader, the modern-day responder to God’s miraculous grace. Below each name, Grimes works her poetic genius, imagining what is flowing through their minds as they work out what God set into motion. It is beautiful and personal; a meditation that helps us join the journey towards Bethlehem.
The second book is How Many Miles to Bethlehem? by Kevin Crossley-Holland, illustrated by Peter Malone. Much like the first, it carries us through the nativity narrative by introducing us to all the players and their perceptions of how they are participating in this great Story.

The last two pages end with the angels and the Christ-child himself:

We are angels. We are your secret voices. Listen!
“This baby!”
“This hope!”
“This peace”

Wandering shepherds, wise men, we will enfold you.
We will lead Mary and Joseph with our light.

I am the Light of Light.
The baby who will cradle the world.
In your heart, hold me.
I will never leave you.
If we listen well, we will be forever changed. Hear the hearts of those who led the way. The ones who help us say: There is pain, there is fear, there is wonder, there is sorrow. But along the way, we also see love, we see peace, we see hope, and we see joy.

Behold, all can be made new. The Light has come.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

"Mortimer's Christmas Manger" and Welcoming the King

I read an article the other day that talked about all the different reactions to the arrival of the Messiah. King Herod was threatened, the masses in Jerusalem were troubles, the chief priests and scribes were apathetic. But the travelers, the Magi, were the true worshipers.

When I read this, I immediately thought of a simple little Christmas book I’d read at the beginning of the season. I wanted to write about it, but wasn’t sure how. The book is Mortimer’s Christmas Manger, by Karma Wilson. Wilson heralds from The Bear Snores On fame, and has created a mini monopoly on amazing storytime books featuring Bear. Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised to learn she is a believer and has written a few children’s devotional books as well.

The story goes like this: a little mouse named Mortimer is tired of living in his dark hole. “It’s too cold, too cramped, too creepy,” he squeaks. So he ventures out and find a nativity set that looks just the right size for his new home. Only there are all these statues in the way. So he tugs and pulls them outside the stable.

When he comes to the baby in a manger, Mortimer is thrilled. A bed, just his size. “There’s no room for you here,” he says. “Out you go.”

Each morning Mortimer goes in search of good things to eat. When he returns, to his dismay, he finds the statues back in his little house. So he tugs them out again, and again.

Then one morning, he overhears the family reading a story. He heard about Mary, and Joseph, a bright star, shepherds, and three wise kings.

Then Mortimer heard about a baby. A baby who was born in a stable and had no real bed but slept in a wooden manger. A baby born to save the world!

“And His name shall be called Jesus,” said the man.
Mortimer looked up. He saw the star atop the Christmas tree, and the statues near the stable. And then he saw the baby.

“I see . . .” he sighed. “You aren’t just any statue. You are a statue of Jesus.”

Mortimer was sad. He didn’t want to lose his new home. But he knew what he had to do. He tugged the statues back into the stable. And then he placed the baby back in the manger.
“There was no room for you in the inn. But I know where there is room,” he said.

After that Mortimer wandered back towards his dark hole. But as he went he prayed a prayer: “Jesus, you were born to save the world. Perhaps you could also bring me a home?”

That’s when he saw another small building. Just his size! A gingerbread house.

“Thank you, Jesus,” said Mortimer. “You’ve made room for me too.”

The story is a little cheesy, but oh so true. We can easily respond to Jesus like Herod, the masses in Jerusalem, or even the chief priests and scribes. But we have a choice. Let us respond with open hearts and minds, with awe and worship, at the arrival of the newborn King. After all, we know how the Story ends. As Mortimer reminds us, He came to save the world. He came to save us.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

"The First Night" and Christmas' Pain

Nativity picture books are a wonderful way to tell the story of Jesus’ Advent and birth. But as I read through these beautifully illustrated stories, there is something missing. It is a key component of Advent. And if we aren’t careful, leaving it at the door will rob us of a very important message about Christmas.

In his article, Christmas Doesn’t Ignore Your Pain, David Mathis writes,
The real Christmas does not ignore our pain. When we open the pages of Scripture and turn to that first Christmas, we find, without doubt, that all was not merry and bright. The new glimpses of merriness that do emerge fall against the backdrop of misery and disorder. Those first rays of brightness shone in a land of deep darkness. . .

More significant than Joseph’s or Mary’s pain is the pain and sin and suffering and ruin for which Jesus came. The angel declared to Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

. . . If God’s people, not to mention the nations, weren’t needy — desperately so — there would have been no Christmas. Christ did not come to put on a show or make a cameo in history. He came to bring life to the dead, to rescue the perishing, to heal the sick, to destroy the works of the devil. For centuries, misery and darkness had been compounding. Only in coming to such a depraved and disfigured world would his arrival signal hope for any real merriment and brightness.
I don’t know about you, but misery and darkness aren’t themes I see in many picture books. It’s often too deep a subject for young readers’ blossoming minds and hearts. Yet, as I wrote about last Blue Christmas (December 21), we need the darkness to more fully see the light. A story is the most powerful when the protagonist has to overcome a great obstacle or challenge. So why are all these nativity stories so docile and quiet?

Today’s picture book is a perfect example of this. B.G. Hennessy’s The First Night, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher is almost pure Nativity fact. No extraneous details or additional animals are there to help tell the story. It’s simple and beautiful. But after reading Mathis’ article, it struck me how much it was devoid of pain.

But I don’t really think it is. The author opens the book with John 1:14: "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth."

Maybe it’s that grace and truth tend to shine brighter than the pain. The pain of Mary, of Joseph, of a waiting nation, of an over-crowded Bethlehem, of a baby who would grow up and suffer and die for us, the ones desperately in need of God’s presence among us. He lived a painful and difficult life, yet flowing through His veins was a sustaining joy that could not be quenched, even by death.

Mathis continues,
The great joy the angels announced at that first Christmas can sustain us as well. Christmas doesn’t ignore our many pains; neither does it bid us wallow in them. Christmas takes them seriously, more seriously than any secular celebration can, and reminds us that our God has seen our pain and heard our cries for help and he himself has come to deliver us.
 The last few pages of The First Night read,
There was a mother, a father, and a baby.
The baby lay on a bed made of hay.

The baby was seeing this world for the first time.
He saw the swaying lantern, the donkey, and the woolly lamb.

He felt the night air,
his soft blanket,
his mother’s arms,
his father’s hands.

And in that warm, dark stable
His life began.
The scene looks so serene. But it was not devoid of darkness. That is where God intended for Jesus' life to begin. With this humble beginning in a dreary and broken world, He grew up to become our Light of Life.

We cannot forget that Christmas includes our pain. Without it, there would be no reason for Jesus to come at all.