Ever watched the scene in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” where Linus tells about the angels appearing to the shepherds? Blogger Jason Soroski points out that Linus, who has spent the entire film being ridiculed for his security blanket, drops the blanket at the exact moment (00:38 in the above clip) when he recounts the ‘Fear not’ of the angels. It’s a beautiful picture of what happens when we get caught up in the story of God’s rescue of the world in Jesus. Not that our fears disappear, but they lose their grip on us.
But as Linus finishes telling the story, he picks the blanket up again. For me, THIS is the most powerful moment in the movie. As much as I’d like to be done with my fears, they are constant companions, dogging me as I walk the path Jesus has laid before me. I have glimpses of the future, when I am so caught up in the beauty of the story of Jesus, that my fears lose their grip and I forget they’re there. Often, like Linus, those moments tend to come when I’m retelling what Jesus has done. But then I forget, and grab for the blanket again. I’m thankful that Christmas is about God come to be with us amid the fear that we can’t seem to let go. And I look forward to the promise of Easter in a few months: fear is not the last word in my life.
It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of Christmas to Christian theology. While the death of Jesus on a cross has become the global symbol of Christianity, his arrival in Bethlehem is no less important. The stories of Jesus’s birth in the gospels give shape to much of our understanding of who God is, who we are, and even how we do theology. The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 2:6 that the incarnation (that’s the fancy word to describe God taking on flesh and becoming a man) demonstrates that God is, by nature, a being who gives himself in love for his creation. In Jesus’s birth and life, we see the kind of life humanity was made to have – one of dependence and submission to God that leads to fullness of life.
The arrival of God in a specific town, at a specific time and place, shows that God does not exist in a vacuum. Place and time and culture matter. Context matters when we do theology. So today, as you think about what Christmas means, take a few minutes to enjoy a tour of modern-day Bethlehem with one of my favorite video tour guides. It isn’t the same town it once was, and that matters.
There’s no going back – and that’s ok. Because the incarnation of Jesus paved the way for God to come to you today, in your place and your context…even if the world has changed in the 2000 years since his first coming.
When is too soon to start “Christmasing”? Surely you’ve engaged in some form of this debate. Here at the Chapelgate church office, there are some who start cranking the carols the minute there’s a hint of chill in the air; and there are others, me among them, who steadfastly resist any muddling of holidays – Thanksgiving must come first, then we can start celebrating Christmas. So it might come as a surprise to those on the receiving end of one of my “turn that Christmas music off” rants to learn that I picked out my Christmas tree way back in June.
It all started one day when my neighbor walked across the street with the express purpose of telling me that I needed to get rid of the pine tree in my front yard. She was worried that it was planted directly over the water pipe, and had heard that the roots of this species would go straight for the pipe and break it. I didn’t like the way it looked anyway, so it was a good excuse…the tree had to go. That was when my wife had the brilliant idea to leave it alone until the winter, and cut it down for our Christmas tree. This appealed to me on so many levels: I hate spending money (free tree!); I hate making decisions (there’s only one tree to pick!); I hate it when the cut tree doesn’t make it to Christmas before shedding its needles (what could be fresher?).
And so, our Christmas tree was chosen. For the rest of the summer and fall, whenever I looked at the tree, I thought of Christmas. I wasn’t exactly giddy with anticipation, but it was pretty cool when the day came (the day AFTER Thanksgiving) to finally cut the tree down. I can’t say I’ve had a total change of heart about when is too early to play those carols (I still might judge you if it’s early November), but maybe a little softening, thanks to our home-grown Christmas tree.
We don’t tend to think of the Advent season as a time for deep soul-searching…we leave that to Lent. But maybe it’s right for Christmas to expose some of the darkness of our hearts. Matthew 1:21 says: “you shall give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” As we wait for the arrival of Jesus, maybe it’s good to remember the reason we need him to come. In my case, I need Jesus because I judge people who don’t live up to my rules for proper timing of holiday celebrations. I need him for a lot more, too. What about you?
I’ve always envied people who could get up early in the morning to pray and read scripture. Listening to God and speaking to him seems like a great way to start the day – but whenever I try it I end up tired and distracted. After about a week I give up in a fit of despair.
Stay up an extra hour at night? No problem. But get up 15 minutes earlier in the morning? No can do.
But I know that I cannot pursue my day without being connected to God, so I often find myself squeezing in a quick prayer in the car during the school run.
I’ve recently re-discovered a website designed to help people like me connect with God in the midst of the every-day of life. Pray As You Go contains a daily reading from scripture and a short word to help kick-start a conversation with God. Why not give it a try this Advent season? Follow the link and click on today’s date, or download their app for your phone.
International border crossings are scary places. I’ve probably experienced close to 100 crossings, yet each time my heart rate picks up and I start running through answers to potential questions in my head. How long will you be here? Where are you staying? Have you been near farm animals? I’ve never had anything to hide or any rational reason to fear an immigration officer. Still, they scare me. It’s like going to the doctor, but worse.
And if I’m honest, I’m one of the lucky ones who really don’t have reason to fear. Many people crossing borders don’t do so by choice. Many have been forced from their homes, fleeing war, gangs, or political oppression. If they are turned away, an uncertain return home awaits. If they are allowed in, they still may face periods of detention, harsh conditions in refugee camps, and discrimination from native populations. Their fear of border crossings is real.
When Jesus crossed from Israel to Egypt as a two-year old, he may have been unaware of the fear his parents felt. Fleeing a government official willing to sacrifice many children in order to kill their son, Mary and Joseph knew they could not stay in Bethlehem. Their future as refugees in Egypt was less than certain, but God had told them to go, and that was enough.
I have no idea what it would have looked like to cross the border to Egypt back then, or which route they would have taken. They didn’t have border guards and passport inspections, at least not as we know them today. But the feeling of crossing over would have been there. The unknown. The fear. But also the confident hope that God had sent them there. That he was doing something in the world, something important enough to send this little family into hiding.
Above is a picture of the main Israel/Egypt crossing at Taba. Let it fuel your imagination as you consider Jesus, the refugee who would save the world.
One of the many jarring realities that overseas missionaries experience is the separation from family and the need to create new traditions around the holidays. For us and our children, living in England meant we couldn’t go over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house. There was no Christmas Eve dinner with the Passerelli clan, no grilled-cheese sandwiches (like the Wise Men ate) for Christmas lunch at the McKee’s. We had to create new ways of celebrating the holiday, new traditions to remember and look forward to each year.
One of those habits was formed during our first year in London, when our children were just 4 and 5 years old. One evening in early December we read the Christmas story from Matthew 1:18-24. We read it again the following night, and each night after that leading up to Christmas. Soon our girls began to know the story and fill in missing words when I would leave a space. This is how the birth of… “Jesus Christ!” …came about.
We started to read it with real emotion and to have fun with the words. We would whisper “…he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” And we would give the angel a loud, deep voice when he said “JOSEPH, SON OF DAVID.” Our girls struggled to say ‘righteous man’ and ‘Immanuel’, and learned about the Holy Spirit and being ‘with child.’
Those evenings were a beautiful time for our family as we told and retold to each other the story of God with us, come to save his people from their sins. We developed other traditions in following years, but we always come back to ‘This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about…’ at least once every Christmas. As you read it, enjoy, and feel free to have fun with the words…
18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man, and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).