Recapturing the Lost Wonder of Christmas

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The tree and its collection of unique ornaments that would rival a Macy’s window creation remains packed away in boxes.  The lights and animated reindeer that was part of a Griswold-esque lawn display is hibernating in storage. Except for a Hallmark movie or a rerun of an old holiday classic on TV, there is little evidence that Christmas is just a couple weeks away.

There is an unexplainable magic and wonder that ushers in the Christmas holiday. It takes us back in time to when things were simpler, more genuine-where Peace on Earth seemed attainable and the very best of human nature surfaced ever so briefly so that all the world was better because of it.  For many this annual euphoria still exists and is eagerly anticipated and welcomed like an old friend you only see once each year. But sadly for others the season is anything but joyful.  Silent Night becomes just that, silent. Old carols become seasonal haunts leftover from Halloween like the Ghost of Christmas Past except unlike the Dickens story there is little hope of redemption given to its chosen victims. While there is no real evidence that the rate of suicides is elevated during the holidays, it can’t be denied that depression is all the more apparent and intense when you are alone or coming off a particularly cruel year of trials. The hope is that like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life we can find our way through the muck and mire of mental games just in time to celebrate but many will carry their depression on into the new year. Just like the Grinch, someone snuck in during the night and stole our Christmas.

Christmas is the ultimate time for sharing-a dance to a familiar carol, a gift to someone not expecting it, your love with that special someone, memories of past years with old friends, the celebration of an Incarnate baby savior. However when those opportunities to share are removed due to loss of income, loss of health, the death of a spouse or loved one, divorce or separation, the vehicle used to share the holiday is rendered useless, out of order, incapacitated, leaving one feeling lonely and nothing resembling Merry. It is during these times that we as believers in Christ, the Christmas miracle, have to rely on the true focus of the Christmas celebration and recreate our own miracles. It is only through our ability to see and recall the Babe in the manger that we have a chance of recapturing the wonder we so long for at this special and holy time of year.

I have always believed in my heart that the reason Christmas is so wondrous is that God opens up Heaven and releases just a little bit of the holy residue that covered the earth those two thousand years ago on that special night when Christ the Son became flesh and stepped into the world He Himself created. It was the ultimate gift, the epitome of love that the Son of the Most High would enter this world through extraordinary means on a journey He knew would end on a cross. He didn’t come here to turn water to wine, to feed thousands with a few fish or to leave behind quotes that make for good wall plaques. Christ the Christmas miracle came with the objective and divine plan to willingly lay down His life as a once and for all sacrifice that afforded us redemption, reconciliation to the Father and a blessed hope of eternal Christmases in an everlasting Kingdom where sadness, loneliness and depression are forever banished. It is a kingdom according to Revelation where “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for these things will have passed away-forever!”  It is a miracle beyond our human comprehension or explanation. It is the truest essence of Christmas! It remains the wonder of Christmas, if we can but set our sights above the trials and despair of this troubled world.

It would be a bit cruel to identify the problem without offering suggestions on where to go from here.  Lest I be like the TV commercial where I just monitor a problem (“there’s a problem”) here are some things that work for me. I love holiday lights.  There is something about colored lights glowing in the dark that just make you feel good inside.  I recall as kids my brother and I counting light displays on our way to church-a great memory. So now, I go out of my way to take in light displays.  And instead of the same old TV fare I switch over to an old Christmas show or a Hallmark Movie.  Yes, I still watch Frosty, Rudolph and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. It takes me back 50 years to an innocence I cherish, even if there are those days when I resemble Bergermeister or the Grinch. And who doesn’t enjoy the classic holiday songs that accompany Christmas.  Whether it is taking in a concert by Trans Siberian or a local church production, you can’t possibly walk away without at least a tinge of Christmas spirit. One more great remedy for holiday blues is to find a cause, a charity, a need you can adopt to help bring a little Christmas wonder to others who may be feeling just as left out.  It is amazing the healing properties of adopting a family at Christmas or providing a tree or a dinner or a few unexpected toys.  Their joy is infectious and you can’t help but catch the bug if anywhere near. But perhaps the greatest therapy of all is to seek out Church services billed as Christmas celebrations so that the heart, the meaning and the purpose of our celebration is driven home into our depleted spirit so our focus can be redirected to the source of all wonder, the Christ Child, The Prince of our Peace, God with us, the perfect gift for all occasions that like the Jelly of the Month Club from Christmas Vacation, just keeps on giving.  Let the peace of God, which according to Philippians 4 “transcends all understanding”, all hurt, all depression, all loneliness, guard your hearts and minds in the Christ Child.

If you are hurting and not looking forward to the holidays this year, I encourage you with these words and the sincerest of prayers to kneel before the manger and ask for the peace, the comfort, the healing from the source of all celebration and the subject of our reverence, Jesus. Christmas this year may look a little different than in years past but our Father Who is the same yesterday, today and for all Christmases to come will rekindle the holiday flame that may be extinguished so that you can once again warm up to that lost wonder that is Christmas.

 

 

 

 

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The Heart is Compelled to Celebrate Christmas

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In just a few days the world will pause to remember the day when God the Son laid aside His Heavenly Kingship and entered into the world He created to set into motion the divine plan of redemption and reconciliation conceived from the beginning.  But sadly too many will get caught up in the wrappings of the holiday through business, through commercialization and even through religious debates as to the validity of our commemoration, and will completely miss out on the heart and the reasons we pause. Defense over “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” will stir indignation and false piety; the worn argument over leaving Christ in Christmas opposed to those who use Xmas; the ever aging debate over the pagan roots of the holiday and why like Halloween, “Real” Christians would never participate in such secular distractions.  I’m confident Christ is pleased at how diligently we defend Him and promote the model of love He displayed by coming into our world to save us from, well, us.

Christmas brings back so many joyful memories for me from my younger years, and most all of them center around the central figure of Christmas, the Christ Child. I can’t tell you the number of times I played Joseph in the annual church Christmas play.  I recall being part of a multi-level living Christmas Tree set up outside in the cold parking lot of an Indiana mall as we sang carols about none other than Jesus in near zero temps.  I remember as a teen in our youth group taking part in a Madrigal Dinner performance complete with costumes and yes, even tights (because back then I made tights fashionable for men).  I did the Santa thing with our kids and enjoyed every minute and memory made.  The snow, the songs, the plays, the animated Christmas displays downtown, the lights-all part of Christmas memories no one can take from me or diminish through theological orations of gross holiness infractions served up by some who are guilty of brutality through overbearing policing. We get through deeper study that the birth was most likely not a December event.  We understand that the shepherds being outside with the flock indicate a season other than Winter.  We know the timing of the Census and the calendar of Jewish festivals create doubt for a December nativity.  But are these things really essential on our choice and reasoning to remember?

Throwing off the wrappings, the controversy and the distractions, let us merely examine the wonder and the reason of the Incarnation of the Christ child on that Holy night. Jesus, the Word and creator of all things made according to John 1, saw His creation in turmoil. Mankind had perverted everything good about life.  Sin had separated us from Him and there was not enough time or livestock available for the continuing of sacrifices required according to Jewish custom to atone for our sinful ways. A promise had been made to never destroy the population as in the days of Noah, so a new covenant had to be established, one that was final, all inclusive and everlasting, and yet still meet the requirements of bloodshed. Enter Jesus-literally! The time was right and the need never greater. God’s entry into our planet was done in the most unusual, abnormal and uncharacteristic way possible.  He didn’t come into existence suddenly in the synagogue-He didn’t just appear before Kings and religious leaders. He picked a young teen aged girl from a city of poverty and disease and a man who had many of the same struggles we do today, fear, doubt, jealousy, weakness, to be the earthly vessel and parents of His Son. The news of his birth was not proclaimed to the rabbis in the temple-it was proclaimed to the shepherds, the outcasts of society, the indispensable protectors of flocks from wild predators who had little family or means.  Jesus didn’t come with prenatal care in a lavish facility worthy of  king’s birth, but rather a holding stable for animals-the local kennel if you will for all the visiting guests from other countries who had converged on Bethlehem that night. But in that blessed event is the fulfillment of all the carols we sing to this day recalling His birth. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining til He appeared”. “Peace on earth and mercy mild-God and sinner reconciled”. “Come and behold Him, born the king of ages”. “Whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping”. The plan was set into motion.

While we rejoiced, God the Father was broken, knowing that in the blink of an eye this baby boy so innocently portrayed in a manger would be maliciously beaten and scourged and left to die on the Roman cross of crucifixion. In order for the perpetual sacrifice to be made for us, God had to become one of us-the Word becomes flesh and lives among us. The Lamb of God was born only to die. The virgin birth secured His separation from all things sinful so that He who knew no sin, could become the flawless sacrifice-the lamb without any blemish, to die blameless just as he was born. There was no other way for us to be restored to our creator because of our sin, than through the death and blood of one of us who was perfect-Jesus the Christ child. It was truly a cradle to the grave implementation of a divine plan by which we would be forgiven, redeemed, restored and made spotless before Him who made us.  At last we who were made in His image could once again appear like Him, reconciled into the lineage of Christ. We sing “Glory to the newborn king” so that we can sing “my sin, oh the joy of this glorious thought-my sin not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more”! This my friends is Christmas!

I am a wretched man, like Joseph, who struggles with pride, impatience, temptation-living everyday in a sinful world. The message of Christmas is that He who knew me before I was conceived made provisions for my shortcomings and afforded me forgiveness, salvation and everlasting life with Him in a kingdom yet to come, and it all started on that first Christmas morning 2000 years or so ago in Bethlehem, whatever night it was. You’re damn right I’m going to celebrate it-I’m going to sing songs about it-I’m going to enjoy a special church service to reflect on it-I’m going to have my family over and share in a great feast and offer up prayers in remembrance of it and even exchange gifts, remembering that the greatest gift of all was given freely on that first Holy night to all who choose to receive it. There are lights on my house, angels on my tree, a nativity in our family room, and Christmas shows on the TV. I will live according to the book of Romans knowing that some keep certain days as more holy than others but all being acceptable when done to the glory of God.  My only regret is that we only mark one day each year to remember the essence of our faith.  If it were left to me the lights would never come down, the carols would never cease and the magic and joy felt in December would never diminish in January. “For unto us a savior is born-unto us a Son is given, and He is called Jesus”.

It is my heartfelt wish and fervent prayer that my family, my kids, my grand kids and friends find in their hearts this season the wonder and the joy and the core of all things Christmas, and that they make merry in full acknowledgement of the hope born to us on that special night.

Merry Christmas to all!

Oh Holy Night-an Unlikely Composition Makes History

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All who know me know that Christmas is my absolute favorite time of the year. Being a native of the snowy mid-western state of Indiana I cherish the memories and traditions of Christmas past and have tried my best to create similar memories for our family in Las Vegas, sans the snow and cold temps. For me Christmas was always ushered in by the seasonal carols-I knew the holiday was close when the radio began playing Joy to the World, White Christmas, Silver Bells, Silent Night, and all the carols that have survived through the decades.  But no carol moves me to this day more so than Oh Holy Night. Of all the carols this song does more to transport me back to what must have been a magical night all over the earth as God the Son and Creator became flesh to dwell among us. This carol has been covered by the best voices in the world, each adding their own touch, from Celine to Groban to Crosby, and my favorite, Transiberian Orchestra.  There is no carol that sets the mood for Christmas among believers more than Oh Holy Night.

What many people don’t know is how God orchestrated the most unlikely characters and unusual circumstances in the composition of this song.  The lyrics were written by a man who would later walk away from the church to join the socialist party, and the music by a Jewish man who did not believe in Jesus the Messiah.  I was fascinated when I first read this story.

Placide Cappeau was a well known poet and commissioner of wines in France but not so well known as a church attender.  It was in 1847 that the priest of his parish asked him to compose a poem of religious origin that would be appropriate for Christmas Mass. Cappeau relied on texts from the Gospel of Luke and his imagination of what that blessed night must have been like and penned the words to Cantique de Noel on a stage coach ride to Paris. Upon its completion, Cappeau was so moved by his own composition that he decided these words should be put to music but music was not his strength.  So he called upon his good friend Adolphe Charles Adam, equally well known for his musical compositions.  Adolphe was Jewish. It was miraculous how the words to Cappeau’s poem moved Adam so much that he composed perhaps the most beloved and recognizable hymn about an event he did’t celebrate and personally didn’t believe in. Oh Holy Night, words by a socialist and music by a Jew!

The score was performed for Mass just three weeks later and quickly accepted across France.  However its fame was short lived as Cappeau joined the Socialist Party and the Catholic Church discovered that a Jew composed the music.  Oh Holy Night was banned for lack of content and musical taste for decades after, that is until John Sullivan Dwight, a struggling Unitarian minister and publisher of Dwight’s Journal of Music found the words and was moved by the composition.  You see, Dwight was an abolitionist and when he saw the lyrics, “for the slave is our brother”, he was inspired. It was Dwight who translated the lyrics into English and first introduced it to America.  But wait, there’s more!

In 1906, six decades after the song was composed by the most unlikely sources, another miracle was about to take place. The alternator-trasmitter had recently been developed allowing voice to be transmitted to ships and newspaper publishers by radio waves produced as a result of the high spinning alternator. Radio pioneer Reginald Fessenden, a former employee for Thomas Edison, first tested this new radio device by reading the first few verses from the Christmas story as recorded in the Gospel of Luke chapter two. Fessenden, also a musician, then picked up his violin and played Cantique de Noel, Oh Holy Night!  This beloved Christmas carol made history and is acknowledged as the very first song ever broadcast over radio, and all at the hands of a socialist, a Jew, a failed Unitarian minister and an Anglican through the orchestration of events by an all inclusive God!  Awe inspiring and yet, not at all surprising-He is after all, God!

Christmas is all about inclusion, and in light of recent events revolving around police actions and injustices, what a better time to reflect on the commonalities of our races and status and not the differences. Dwight, being a witness to the evils of slavery, fell in love with the lyric “change shall He bring for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease“. Paul would write in Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ”.  You see, if you read the story carefully you will see that the young are represented by Mary, thought to be no more than fourteen years old when she gave birth, and the old are represented by Simeon, who would die shortly after seeing his Messiah. The rich are represented by the Wise men from the east bearing gifts for the Savior, and the poor by Jesus own parents who could barely afford doves for their sacrifice at the temple. The women are represented by the Theotokos, Mary, the bearer of God and her cousin Elizabeth who bore John the Baptist, while the men are represented by Joseph, a hard working everyday man chosen by God to be the earthly father of Jesus. And the outcast are represented by the shepherds, the lowest of the low deemed indispensable enough to guard the flocks against bears and other predators. This was God’s plan all along-unity through love and a common hope and equal inheritance.  We are to blame for creating the racial, societal and even the religious divisions among us. God’s gift of His son was to unite us and reconcile all of us, each different but all the same in Christ, to Him.

So this Christmas season, when you hear or sing this beautiful and beloved hymn Oh Holy Night, I want to challenge you to consider each other as you sing, the poor, the homeless, the black or the white, the Republican or Democrat, the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Atheist, the immigrant-those who would never come to mind normally, and imagine a time and a place two thousand years ago when the world for one night was at peace and as one as they ushered in with great celebration and Holy awe the creator of us all, the Christ child Jesus.  Surely, it must have been one holy night!  When you do, I can promise you that the spirit of Christmas past present and to come will dwell richly within you and the world around you will seem just a little less hostile, and each other a little less different.  God Bless you and Merry Christmas.