Here we are on the other side of Christmas and the New Year. Of course, today is still technically a holiday for some folks since the New Year fell on a Sunday but for most people, the holidays are over and there is a sense of finality as decorations come down and life returns to normal. The hopes, joys, and peace of Christmas (that we have been preparing for since October!) is suddenly gone and we are left with this idea of what to do now.
Of course, the fun isn’t over yet because there are many people who believe that Jesus will come this year and could even come today! It should not matter to us whether he comes this day, this year, or in 20 years as long as we are prepared and watching for his coming. After all, we are told to be ever watchful and thankful in our actions, thoughts, and lives.
Intriguing instruction to be watchful and thankful in prayer. I mean, these aren’t two words one would normally put together for something as benign-seeming as prayer. And yet, it’s not the first time Paul speaks of danger in the prayer closet or the necessity for alertness.
Keep on praying and guard your prayers with thanksgiving. -Colossians 4:2 (CEB)
But is there danger in my prayers? Not hardly. At least, not at first blush. I rarely consider myself to be in deep spiritual battle. Or am I?
Is it possible that mere steadfastness, faithfulness, and consistency can make waves in the spiritual realm? Is it possible that I am part of the “transformational” by holding up my friends and family in the Light of the Christ? Is it possible that my quiet moments of deep connection to the Spirit have resounding impact? And if that is so, is it possible that there is push back that manifests in ways I do not realize?
Perhaps this is what it means to be watchful in prayer: becoming aware of the imprint of God. Watch for movement in the spirit realm. Allow the spiritual senses to become alive in prayer: not just seeing with the inner eye, but also hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling.
I followed the devotional You Set My Spirit Free: A 40-Day Journey in the Company of John of the Cross, which was arranged and paraphrased by David Hazard. In the devotional, he writes, “He creates in you the desire to find Him [the Spirit] and run after Him–to follow wherever He leads you, and to press peacefully against His heart wherever He is . . . Press, and keep pressing into His heart, until you have pressed the image of His invisible nature into the substance of your soul.”
Be watchful. When this happens, there could be fireworks.
We are told in various places throughout the New Testament to give thanks:
Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. -Romans 14:6 (CEB)
Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. -1 Thessalonians 5:18 (CEB)
They said, “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and was, for you have taken your great power and enforced your rule. -Revelation 11:17 (CEB)
I have always thought of this as something I must do willfully and consciously, but today I imagine what it would be like to be overcome with a spirit of thanksgiving. To give thanks out of a heart overflowing with an appreciation for the presence of God.
So then, the essence is to “be watchful” in order to experience the fullness of the Spirit which automatically leads to thankfulness. That’s good.
She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. -Matthew 1:21 (CEB)
Today we jump back a few weeks before Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple for His presentation. We look at Jesus’ eighth day when He was circumcised and named. We will speak of the significance of His circumcision in tomorrow’s devotion, but today we speak of the importance of His Name.
Does a name mean much to you? To the people of Israel and to God a name was extremely important. Each name carried its own meaning and became an integral part of that child’s life, often describing the character of that child. An Israelite boy’s name was very significant, and it was usually given on the eighth day when he was circumcised. So on the eighth day when the Christ Child was circumcised, He was given the name Jesus, just as the angel had instructed Joseph and Mary.
What a deep and profound Name! Jesus means “The LORD saves.” It describes the purpose for which He descended from heaven and became human. As the angel told Joseph, Jesus would save His people from their sins. His Name perfectly fits who He was and that which He had come to do for us all.
As we close out the year 2011, it is fitting to look back on the last 365 days and take account of our lives. What great things has God done for you or through you in this year? Give Him praise.
On the other hand, what regrets do you have? What problems in your life are the still strong echoes of sinful and foolish choices you have made?
At the beginning of this coming New Year we all want to wipe the slate clean and start 2011 with a fresh start. But neither regret nor resolution can wipe our slate clean. Only Jesus can do that.
This is why many churches open their doors this night to hold New Year’s Eve services-often with Holy Communion. As we receive the very same body and blood which Jesus took on Himself at His conception, the same body which was laid in the manger at His birth, the same blood which was poured out for us on the cross, our sins are taken away, our slate is washed clean, and we are at peace with God our Father. That peace is not only for day one of 2012, but for every day that remains in this life and for all eternity.
For many people, today marks the day after Christmas. Gifts will be returned to stores. Decorations will come down. Radio stations stop playing Christmas music. It’s as if a month or more of waiting and preparing are gone and we have moved on to the next big thing. Christmas is over, right?
As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the LORD God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations. -Isaiah 61:11 (CEB)
Many years ago, events unfolded around a single baby born in a cave and laid in a manger. It is likely that he was not born on December 25 but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that he was born. It was like the spreading of seeds into the world that would grow and spread through out the world. The day that we call Christmas does celebrate the incarnation of God. We sing hymns, go to church, share in Christmas spirit and fellowship, and yes we even exchange gifts. This is a celebration of the incarnation but then suddenly on December 26, we stop celebrating the incarnation of God and go back to our ordinary lives.
Their offspring will be known among the nations, and their descendants among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that they are a people blessed by the LORD. -Isaiah 61:9 (CEB)
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year,” says the repentant Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” As the end of 2011 draws near and we look toward a new year, “keeping Christmas in our hearts” could become our resolution for 2012. One way to do so might be to take the familiar carol “The 12 Days of Christmas” as our guide.
In recent years, it has been asserted that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was originally written as a secret catechism, used to teach the principles of the Catholic faith during times of persecution in England — i.e., four calling birds were secret references to the four Gospels, or the four evangelists, etc. While the evidence for this claim is a tad dubious, that doesn’t mean it might not serve us well just the same. By taking a new look at this old song, we may discover we have 12 months’ worth of ideas to help us keep Christmas — and to grow in our faith — in the year ahead.
January: A partridge in a pear tree. The partridge is said to represent Jesus, the one true gift of the Father. This month, renew your commitment to faith by spending time each day in prayer with Jesus. Don’t make it so difficult you quit before you begin. It is enough to start each day (maybe while brushing your teeth) by simply saying, “Jesus, be with me today.” After doing this for 31 days, it’s likely a new habit of trust and hope will have taken root in your heart . . . just like the pear tree in the song.
February: Two turtledoves. The Old and the New Testaments are presumably signified by the turtledoves. This month, pay special attention to the readings from the Old Testament and the New Testament in church. If you are feeling particularly motivated, you might choose to read one book from each of the testaments. If you’ve never read the Book of Genesis, you might be surprised at what some of the stories you think you know by heart, like Adam and Eve, really say. The same goes for Paul’s letters, especially the Letter to the Ephesians.
March: Three french hens. The Magi are said to have brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ Child. Gold is symbolic of our money, frankincense of our faith, and myrrh of the ultimate end of our lives. During March, take time to consider how you are using your financial resources, how you nurture your faith, and how you are living your life in light of the final union with God.
April: Four calling birds. The four Gospels tell the story of Jesus and our salvation. Select one Gospel verse this month and ask for the faith to bring it to life. Since April is tax month and a time of worry for many people, consider Matthew 6: 25-34: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? “. . . But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
May: Five gold rings. The first five books of the Old Testament are called the Torah or the Pentateuch and contain the foundations of our faith in the one, true God. They would have been very familiar to Jesus, who would have read them in the Temple. During May, the month of Our Lady, take some time to consider how the prophesies of the Old Testament were fulfilled through Mary and her son.
June: Six Geese a-laying. For six days, God labored and worked at creation. On the seventh day, he rested. This month, make an attempt to keep the Sabbath free of unnecessary work. Use it, instead, for things that renew and rejuvenate your spirit.
July: Seven Swans a-swimming. We are taught that the Holy Spirit has given us seven gifts: wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, piety and fear (or awe) of the Lord. During July, look for evidence of the gifts of the Spirit in your life. Pray that the gift you need the most becomes manifest and “swims” bountifully in your life.
August: Eight maids a-milking. Listed in Matthew 5: 1-12, the Eight Beatitudes give us a concrete formula for living a holy life. In fact, St. Augustine called the Beatitudes the ideal model for every Christian life. During August, choose one of the corporal or spiritual works of mercy (see sidebar) in order to live out the Beatitudes in your own life.
September: Nine ladies dancing. In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul lists nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (5:22-23). When we receive the Holy Spirit at our baptism and confirmation, these gifts enter into our lives. This month, ask that you can fully experience their presence in your daily life.
October: Ten lords a-leaping. This month the presidential campaign will kick into high gear. As you prepare to vote, pray that the candidates remember the Ten Commandments and the principles on which our nation was founded.
November: Eleven pipers piping. We sometimes forget that there were only 11 faithful disciples left at the time of the Crucifixion. During November, remember all those family members and friends who are no longer practicing the faith, as well as all those who have died and gone before us.
December: Twelve drummers drumming. Sometimes we make our faith more complicated than it really is. The Apostles’ Creed contains all the basics that we must believe. Sometime this month, read the creed slowly and make your own assertion of faith to each of its 12 points.
To maintain the spirit of Christmas alive all the year is simply to keep the spirit of Christ living in our words and in our deeds. By looking at an old familiar carol in a new way, we can truly keep Christmas every month of the year.
It may be December 26 but it doesn’t mean that Christmas has to be over. Let’s live out the joy of the incarnation of God all year long whether we are surrounded by the trappings of Christmas or not.
lunges through stars to Nazareth
Words explode in Mary’s mind
expand her role in history
no peasant girl ever heard such a thing
A star leads Magi
to the scepter rising
in the starry fields of Jacob
Shepherds come like flocks
to see David’s son
who will gather the lost sheep of Israel
The carpenter obeys,
he builds up a child
in wisdom and stature
Let my heart not be too full
that like an inkeeper
I turn you away
We all know the the Christmas story as it is told in Luke:
In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told. -Luke 2:1-20 (CEB)
But have you ever thought about it from God’s perspective? Here is how I think the Christmas story would go from another perspective:
Once upon a time – or before time, actually, before there were clocks or calendars or Christmas trees – God was all there was. No one knows anything about that time because no one was there to know it, but somewhere in the middle of that time before time, God decided to make a world. Maybe God was bored or maybe God was lonely or maybe God just liked to make things and thought it was time to try something big.
Whatever the reason, God made a world – this world – and filled it with the most astonishing things: with humpback whales that sing and white-striped skunks that stink and birds with more colors on them than in a box of Crayola crayons. The list of wonders is too long to go into here, but let’s just say that at the end when God stood back and looked at it all, God was pleased. Only something was missing. God not think what it was at first, but slowly it dawned on God.
Everything God had made was interesting and gorgeous and it all fit together really well, only there was nothing in the world that looked like God exactly. It was as if God had painted this huge masterpiece and then forgot to sign it, so God got busy making the signature piece, something made in God’s own image, so that anyone who looked at it would know who the artist was.
God had a single thing in mind at first, but as God worked, God realized that one thing all by itself was not the kind of statement to make. God knew what it was like to be alone, and that God had made a world God knew what it was like to have company, and company was definitely better. So God decided to make two things instead of one, which were alike but different, and both would be reflections of God – a man and a woman who could keep both God and each other company.
Flesh was what he made them out of – flesh and blood – a wonderful medium, extremely flexible and warm to the touch. Since God, strictly speaking, was not made out of anything at all but was pure mind and pure spirit, he was very taken with flesh and blood. Watching his two creatures stretch and yawn, laugh and run, he found to his surprise that he was more than a little envious of them. He had made them, it was true, and he knew how fragile they were but there very breakability made them more touching to him, somehow. It was not long before God found himself falling in love with them. He liked being with them better than any of the other creatures he had made and he especially liked walking with in the garden in the cool of the evening.
It almost broke God’s heart when they got together behind his back, did the one thing he had asked them not to do and then hid from him – from him! – while he searched the garden until way past dark, calling their names over and over again. Things were different after that. God still loved the human creatures best of all, but the attraction was not mutual. Birds were crazy about God, especially ruby-throated hummingbirds. Dolphins and raccoons could not get enough of him, but the human beings had other things on their minds. They were busy learning how to make things, grow things, buy things, sell things, and the more they learned to do for themselves, the less they depended on God. Night after night he threw pebbles at their windows, inviting them to go for a walk with him, but they said they were sorry, they were busy.
It was not long before most human beings forgot about him. They called themselves “self-made” men and women, as if that were a plus and not a minus. They honestly believed they had created themselves, and they liked the result so much that they divided themselves into groups of people who looked, thought, and talked alike. Those who still believed in God drew pictures of him that looked just like them, and that made it easier for them to turn away from the people who were different. You would not believe the trouble this got them into: everything from armed warfare to cities split right down the middle, with one kind of people living on that side of the line and another kind on the other.
God would have put a stop to it all right there, except for one thing. When he had made human beings, he had made them free. That was built into them just like their hearts and brains were, and even God could not take it back without killing them. So God left them free, and it almost killed him to see what they were doing to each other.
God shouted to them from the sidelines, using every means he could think of, including floods, famines, messengers, and manna. He got inside people’s dreams, and if that did not work, he woke them up in the middle of the night with his whispering. No matter what he tried, however, he came up against the barriers of flesh and blood. They were made of it and he was not, which made translation difficult. God would say, “Please stop before you destroy yourselves!” but all they could hear was thunder. God would say, “I love you as much now as the day I made you,” but all they could hear was a loon calling across the water.
Babies were the exception to this sad state of affairs. While their parents were all but deaf to God’s messages, babies did not have any trouble hearing him at all. They were all the time laughing at God’s jokes or crying with him when he cried, which went right over their parent’s heads. “Colic,” the grown-ups would say, or “Isn’t she cute? She’s laughing at the dust mites in the sunlight.” Only she wasn’t, of course, she was laughing because God had just told her that it was cleaning day in heaven, and that what she saw were fallen stars the angels were shaking from their feather dusters.
Babies did not go to war. They never made hate speeches or littered or refused to play with each other because they belonged to different political parties. They depended on other people for everything necessary for their lives and a phrase like “self-made babies” would have made them laugh until their bellies hurt. While no one asked their opinions about anything that matter (which would have been a smart thing to do), almost everyone seemed to love them, and that gave God an idea.
Why not create himself as one of those delightful creatures?
He tried the idea out on his cabinet of archangels and at first they were all very quiet. Finally, the senior archangel stepped forward to speak for them all. He told God how much they would worry about him, if he did that. He would be putting himself at the mercy of his creatures, the angel said. People could do anything they wanted to him, and if he seriously meant to become one of them there would be no escape for him if things turned sour. Could he at least create himself as a magical baby with special powers? It would not take much – just the power to become invisible, maybe, or the power to hurl lightning bolts if the need arose. The baby idea was a stroke of genius, the angel said, it really was, but it lacked adequate safety features.
God thanked the archangels for their concern but said no, he thought he would be just a regular baby. How else could he gain the trust of his creatures? How else could he persuade them that he knew their lives inside and out, unless he lived on like theirs? There was a risk and he knew that. Okay, there was a high risk, but that was part of what he wanted his creatures to know: that he was willing to risk everything to get close to them, in hopes they might love him again.
It was a daring plan, but once the angels saw that God was dead set on it, they broke into applause – not the uproarious kind but the steady kind that goes on and on and on when you have witnessed something you know you will never see again.
While they were still clapping, God turned around and left the cabinet chamber, shedding his robes as he went. The angels watched as his midnight blue mantle fell to the floor, so that all the stars on it collapsed in a heap. Then a strange thing happened. Where the robes had fallen, the floor melted and opened up to reveal a scrubby brown pasture speckled with sheep – and right in the middle of them – a bunch of shepherds sitting around a camp fire drinking wine out of skin. It was hard to say who was more startled, the shepherds or the angels, but as the shepherds looked up at them, the angels pushed their senior member to the edge of the hole. Looking down at the human beings who were all trying to hide behind each other (poor creatures, no wings), the angel said in as gentle a voice as he could must, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
And away up the hill, from the direction of town, came the sound of a newborn baby’s cry.
Glory to God in the Highest!
Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” -Luke 2:8-14 (CEB)
The first names in the guest book at Bethlehem’s birthplace belonged to shepherds—nobodies. First-century shepherds were considered misfits and outcasts. Michael and Stormie Omaritian in their musical Child of Promise give this perspective from a first-century shepherd:
It’s lonely out here in this isolated job.
Our position is without esteem.
We’re socially challenged.
We’re society’s scourge.
We’re not exactly every woman’s dream.
Shepherds have a humble purpose.
Of our fate few people care.
Sometimes I wonder if God knows we exist.
If he does, he’s forgotten where.
God didn’t, however, forget these nobodies! He wrote them into a privileged class by first announcing to them the birth of the Messiah. The black night explodes with dazzling light and ecstatic song. God danced with the nobodies! When the shepherds heard the song of the angels, they moved on it and became the first witnesses to this miraculous birth.
God loves nobodies! Paul says that God deliberately chose things the world despises to shame the wise and the powerful, “so that no one can ever boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26). God intentionally chose these first-century nobodies
to give us a glimpse into the nature of the ministry of the good shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep ( John 10:11). God continues to identify with marginalized people and gave us the task to be his hands and feet to the nobodies of our world.
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light.
On those living in a pitch-dark land,
light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian,
you’ve shattered the yoke
that burdened them,
the staff on their shoulders,
and the rod of their oppressor.
Because every boot
of the thundering warriors,
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned, fuel for the fire.
A child is born to us,
a son is given to us,
and authority will be on his shoulders.
He will be named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be vast authority
and endless peace
for David’s throne
and for his kingdom,
establishing and sustaining it
with justice and righteousness
now and forever.
The zeal of the LORD of heavenly forces will do this.
-Isaiah 9:2-7 (CEB)
The promise of Christmas Eve: endless peace for the throne of David—not once upon a time, but endless peace now for all God’s Davids and Davidas, all God’s children everywhere. Humans can talk about peace, pray for peace, even (alas) fight for peace. God comes to bringpeace. God comes as a child, the Prince of Peace—the Wonderful Counselor who alone can reconcile everything. God is the one who can make peace happen. But where is God’s endless peace?
When is it? Now, says God.
It is a gift.
Take it and rejoice.
Take it and live.
Take it and use it well.