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It is as if infancy were the whole of incarnation by Luci Shaw

The waiting of advent is coming to an end, as we celebrate the new born king.

Tonight the stories of a manger, and angels, and shepherds, of a stable, and virgin mom and a donkey come to the part where the birth of the babe seems to be the culmination, the end of the story …

yet, the birth of the baby Jesus is only the beginning of the greatest story ever told.

I love this poem, by Luci Shaw, how she reminds us

It is as if infancy were the whole of incarnation
(by Luci Shaw)

One time of the year
the new-born child
is everywhere,
planted in madonnas’ arms
hay mows, stables,
in palaces or farms,
or quaintly, under snowed gables,
gothic angular or baroque plump,
naked or elaborately swathed,
encircled by Della Robbia wreaths,
garnished with whimsical
partridges and pears,
drummers and drums,
lit by oversize stars,
partnered with lambs,
peace doves, sugar plums,
bells, plastic camels in sets of three
as if these were what we needed
for eternity.

But Jesus the Man is not to be seen.
There are some who are wary, these days,
of beards and sandalled feet.

Yet if we celebrate, let it be
that He
has invaded our lives with purpose,
striding over our picturesque traditions,
our shallow sentiment,
overturning our cash registers,
wielding His peace like a sword,
rescuing us into reality,
demanding much more
than the milk and the softness
and the mother warmth
of the baby in the storefront crèche,
(only the Man would ask
all, of each of us)
reaching out
always, urgently, with strong
effective love
(only the Man would give
His life and live
again for love of us).

Oh come, let us adore Him—
Christ—the Lord.

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“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.”

I have read those words of C.S. Lewis many times over the years, now I have lived them, breathed them, groaned them. I would add to Lewis’ description the feeling that my heart is not beating properly, that it has lost it’s physical rhythm, by the shock of death.

Death and Christmas …

I have been pondering these two this advent season. They both occur, despite our being ready. They affect us all, whether we choose them or not. They settle into our souls, bringing memories from the past. They each affect us well beyond their seasons, for their seasons impact the rest of the calendar year.

… they are difficult to celebrate simultaneously.

Yet …

Death and Christmas came together in the life of this babe, who came at Christmas. Our Joy to the World was birthed out of our need of a redeemer, a saviour. Our Silent Night, so calm and bright, ended at the Old Rugged Cross. Peace on the earth, goodwill to men came at the cost of Nothing but the Blood of Jesus.

There cannot be a more specific, more momentous illustration of death and Christmas than in Jesus’ final conversation with a person, as he hung on the cross.

In Luke 23:38-43 Jesus is hanging between two criminals. One of them is yelling insults at Jesus and asks, “aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The other responds, “we are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Two men, similar criminal activity, similar guilt level. They are, humanly, of the same sin-condition … both guilty of the sin of birth and the sins of life. At this point in the story, they are both condemned to die, physically, eternally.

Then, in his final act, his only hope, that second criminal speaks to Jesus, himself …

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

No pleading, no excuses. Just a simple question asked as a last hope … but it is more than that … for in his simple question comes the heart-level acknowledgement in who is beside him. His question shouts out, in his quiet, shaking voice …

I know who you are … my eyes and soul see that you are He who can save me.

And, in his last words spoken to man, to all of humanity who acknowledges him as our Saviour, Redeemer and Lord, Jesus replies …

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

In the midst of the death of the Christ, is the hope born in the Christmas babe … for a criminal on a cross …

for my dad, for me … for you.

Death and Christmas … they are difficult to celebrate simultaneously. Yet, the sadness I feel over the death of my dad, is born out of the happy memories I have of him. And my (our … for I am not alone in feeling this) earthly great loss will one day be eclipsed by the joy of eternity … an eternity that began with birth of the saviour of the world, at Christmas.

“The pain I feel now
is the happiness I had before.
That’s the deal.”
C.S. Lewis from A Grief Observed

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If I hear it, I turn off the CD, the radio … and I seem to hear it so very often this Christmas season.

“I’ll be home for Christmas …. “

Having lived away from ‘home’ for most of my life, I have had years that I long for that childhood home for the holidays more than other years. This year is a bit different, for what I long for is not so much place, but time.

Seasons, such as Christmas, have triggers that can instantly thrust us into memories of the past.

Snow falling can take me back to snowy memories at Christmas time, when new toboggans, skates, hats and boots would be used. A clear, starry night can take me back to the wonder of searching the night sky for reindeer and Santa. Chocolates can take me back to the thrill of when the Ganong red box was brought out of the closet, signalling that Christmas truly had arrived. The concerts of the season put me back on a stage, as a child, reciting lines, singing Gloria in Excelsis Deo. The trees, the presents, the food, the events … all symbols of the season, all triggers in the mind to another time and place.

My favorite memories of Christmas’ past involve Christmas Eve at the my Gram Smith’s house. The meal, the family, the gifts that Santa had dropped off earlier that day 😉 … such sweet memories. Then there was the drive home, my eyes fixed to the skies for the light from Rudolf’s nose. Early on Christmas morning, when the sky was still ebony, we would be awakened by my dad, NOT trying to be quiet, as he moved through the house, hoping to awaken just one of us so that we could get the day started. The stockings, gifts, laughter … such sweet memories. After the gifts were opened the turkey would be prepared for the oven, but also that big red box of chocolates would come out, filling the plastic tree candy holder … and we would study the ‘map’ from the box to plan our one chocolate selection well (there was nothing worse than making a mistake and biting into a vanilla cream one). Then the gifts that were not toys would be organized back under the tree, in a different form of decoration. Later we would eat that traditional turkey dinner, complete with mashed potato (not bread stuffing) dressing, flavored with summer savory. Once filled to the gills, we would play games, make puzzles, enjoy our toys with family.

My memories of childhood Christmas’ have a rhythm, patterns of rituals that cemented the joys of tradition, family and celebration within my being. And I am so thankful to look back and be so thankful.

But, as I ponder and write about those traditions from the place and people I love, knowing that I will only be home for Christmas in my dreams …

I am also feeling rather ‘homesick’ of another kind, missing one of the heartbeats of my childhood Christmas memories. His absence makes me homesick for that place and time, but also for the Christmas celebration in eternity.

I really hope Saint Peter is a morning soul, for he will be awakened raucously this Christmas.

I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place

Lord, won’t you give me strength to make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now

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2015/01/img_1811.png

The image, above, tells the story of the Fall of humanity, Christmas and Easter in such a way that I am simply captivated.

Eve and Mary are characters essential to understanding the entrance of sin into the human condition, the coming of the Messiah and the redemption the world.

Eve, the mother of creation, the woman through whom God spread the seed of humankind, the taster of the fruit from the forbidden tree.

Mary, the virgin mother of the Messiah, through her was birthed the saving grace that could erase the the aftertaste of the fruit of the forbidden tree, forever.

They both said yes …

Eve (Genesis 3:6) was offered fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and she took it, because it looked good, and because she desired wisdom.

Mary was not offered the opportunity to accept or reject her virgin conception through the Holy Spirit, for she was chosen (“you are chosen from among many women” v.28) yet she did accept it, whatever it meant (“I am willing to be used of the Lord. Let it happen to me as you have said” v.38).

They both shared their tasks with their significant other …

It is interesting to me that it was not until Adam also ate of the fruit that “then the eyes of both of them were opened” (v.7).

Again a significant other was part of Mary’s story, as Joseph also had a job to do in the story, “and you are to give him the name Jesus” Matthew 1:21.

They both shared with all humanity …

Sadly, Eve’s desire for that lovely-looking fruit that would give her wisdom, only led to the fall of herself, and all who came after her. The seed of sin, through the disobedience of she and Adam, has been birthed in every human since, except …

Jesus. All man, all God, the seed of Salvation of all humanity, birthed into life from the womb of Mary. The seed she carried was the only cure for the genetic predisposition to sin that we all are born with.

They both shared in the gift of life …

“Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20). Though she symbolized the beginnings of human life, she was also a vessel through whom death entered our human experience.

Mary was a vessel as well, and through her son, life eternal was redeemed. She has been called the Ark (vessel) of the New Covenant, for she carried, not the law, but the fulfillment of it.

They shared the serpent …

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). For Eve, the serpent was a tempter, whose lies led her to destruction.

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). Though the serpent has been biting at our human heels for all time, the fruit of Mary’s womb, Jesus, came to crush it’s head and death itself … “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” 1 Corinthians 15:22

They shared maternal heartache …

Eve suffered the heartache of the murder of her one son, at the hands of the other (in a sense, her own sin led his death).

Mary suffered the heartache of the murder of her son, by those he came to save (in a sense, her own obedience led to his death).

They shared something with each other that is shared with us all …

If Eve felt the heavy weight of the sin of the world, it is the weight in Mary’s womb that took it away. In this they, and we are redeemed people.

Merry Christmas to all!

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The waiting of advent is akin to the waiting of an expectant mom. Then the time of waiting culminates in the birth of the Christ child.

I remember being pregnant at Christmas a couple of times. The awareness and connectedness that I felt to pregnant Mary caused me to ponder her experiences in my heart.

During each advent and Christmas they resurface once again.

I remember keenly the day I made the following statement to my grandmother, when I was maybe thirteen: “Gram, the Catholics really overemphasize Mary, don’t they?”

To which she replied, swiftly “and maybe the Protestants don’t emphasize her enough.”

Mary was chosen, by God, to be more than just the vessel through which his son would be born human. She was his choice. Not only was she to carry him in her womb, but she laboured him through birth, nursed him, cared for all of his needs. She was his momma.

It was her finger that he first grasped, her eyes that he first stared into, the sound of her voice that he first recognized, her touch that most comforted him.

In each of these firsts we see what heaven will be like, but it will be not just the finger, but the hand of Jesus held out to us, his eyes that we will look into, his voice of invitation and the comfort of his touch.

When a woman is expecting, especially for the first time, there is such curiosity of what is happening within her. Truly pregnancy is a mystery with great anticipation and expectation. Each stage, each movement is awe-inspiring.

Truly every pregnancy is miraculous.

At Christmas the miracle of the pregnancy of Mary is central to the narrative.

In the genealogy of Jesus, is recorded the most intimate of connections to Jesus,

“Joseph, the husband of Mary, 
and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.

To be the mother of Jesus was a high calling, one that need great emphasis, as our Word emphasizes not just her name, but her role (and name) of mother.

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The various characters of the Christmas story each play a vital and intentional role.

Herod is the insecure leader, willing to do anything to hold his throne. The shepherds are the unwitting observers just doing their thing, when the heavenly hosts came to make their great announcement to the Earth. Joseph is the strong and silent blue collar man engaged to the pregnant Mary.

And Mary, she is the young woman who delivers heaven to earth.

There are many who place Mary up on a pedestal near or at the place of Jesus. There are also many who view her as no greater than any other of God’s human creations. I tend to walk the fence on this one … and you can blame my grandmother.

I remember so clearly, as an adolescent girl, asking my grandmother why some people elevate Mary so greatly, whereas the small church (and when I say small, it was really small. I remember when we would sing “The Church in the Wildwood” I thought it was written about her church) she attended barely spoke of her. I have always remembered the response she gave, “well, God did choose her to be the mother of Jesus, I think we should elevate her a lot more than we do.”

I have been wondering and considering her words ever since, and how they fit into my worldview.

Maybe Mary had the faith of a mustard seed that I would so love to have. Maybe Mary was able to know no fear, because she had grown up in a time and a culture of verbal history telling. Maybe the generations old anticipation of the Messiah was so desired and longed for that all fears were erased, because the Messiah was finally coming to Jews (and the Gentiles), to remove them from their bondage.

Do we, as Mary, anticipate and desire the second coming? Are we able to put our fears aside, knowing that, in the end (as was true in the beginning) God is in control?

I think my grandmother was right about Mary. God chose her to be the mother of Jesus. He could have chosen another way to send His son, and He could have chosen any other woman. But, he choose Mary.

Perhaps it is the words of Elizabeth that give us the most insight as to God’s choosing of her to bear the son of God,  “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” Luke 1:45

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It rained … five out of our first seven days home. We returned to work, dealt with jet lag, exhaustion. The schedule was still too packed to do what, humanly, was most needed … mourn.

Saturday morning arrived like cool balm on a hot burn. The schedule open, the pace relaxed. Then it happened … the emotional processing of what the mind had been containing.

The sadness that is very real. The recognition of what I lost when my dad died. The acknowledgement of the earthly permanence of death.

How do we prepare for the Christmas season, when our heart is filled with sorrow?

On my way to work one day this week, I turned on the CD in my vehicle. It is my only Christmas music CD. As I reached to push play, I paused, specifically negotiating whether or not I was ready … prepared for Christmas music, or if it might ignite a teary downpour, leaving me to enter work looking like Tammy Faye Baker (I know, it’s a dated comparison). I was specifically fearful that Joy to World might be on the CD. Thankfully, Josh Groban’s, Noël was safe for my emotions on the edge.

But that song, Joy to the World, had already infested my thoughts, causing my memory to sing it, over and over, like the song that never ends.

Joy to the World, written by Isaac Watts, was printed in 1719 … three hundred years ago! It is a song which tells of the redemption of the world, through the blood and sacrifice of Jesus.

As I write this I wonder how it came to be a Christmas song, as opposed to an Easter one.

Yet, we cannot have one without the other. For the babe in the manger grows up to become the sacrifice on the cross.

And it is in this juxtaposition of images … newborn babe sleeping, man bloodied and dying that allows us to both mourn and celebrate at the same time.

It reminds me of our time at the funeral home (not two weeks ago), when we would feel the sadness of what we were doing one moment, and laughing to the point of belly ache the next.

Psalm 69:29-32 (Message) also speaks to such juxtaposition:

I’m hurt and in pain;
Give me space for healing, and mountain air.
Let me shout God’s name with a praising song,
Let me tell his greatness in a prayer of thanks.
For God, this is better than oxen on the altar,
Far better than blue-ribbon bulls.
The poor in spirit see and are glad—
Oh, you God-seekers, take heart!

How the Psalmist starts out speaking of their pain, their need for healing, then goes on to shouting praises, thanks to God … this praise in the pain is better than “blue-ribbon bulls”, or as Amy Grant sings, Better than a Hallelujah to the ears of God.

How do we prepare for the Christmas season, when our heart is filled with sorrow?

We sing through the sorrow, we celebrate through the sadness, we praise through the pain.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!
Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room,
and heav’n and nature sing,
and heav’n and nature sing,
and heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing.

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Hope … that is the word on this first Sunday of Advent.

As we enter this season of waiting, we begin with hope …

because hope is what helps us to take one step, after another.

As I awoke this morning, I felt the heaviness of the day … it took effort to convince myself of the hope that is promised. I left to head across the country. I left my mom to do the things, internally and externally, that follow death. My heart aches for her, for her heartbreak, for her loss of her life’s love and the things that need to be done after a life is all done, buried. I felt hope slip through my fingers and toes, as I tried to imagine her grief, exhaustion …

like wandering through the wilderness.

That is what today, what hope is for … to help us put one foot in front of the other, as we walk that pilgrim journey through the valley of dark shadows.

The hope of the world is Jesus, from the first hints in the Garden to the manger in a dusty, dirty stable in Bethlehem. We put our hope in what we cannot see, Jesus, the very Son of God, the rescuer and redeemer of our weak and weary world. 

Jesus … the rescuer of those who grieve, those who are heartbroken … like a cane for the lame, he steadies, supports as we place the weight of our world on him.

I know it’s all you’ve got to just be strong,
and it’s a fight just to keep it together
I know you think that you are too far gone,
but hope is never lost

hold on, don’t let go
Just take one step closer,
Put one foot in front of the other
you’ll get through this
Just follow the light in the darkness
You’re gonna be okay

I know your heart is heavy from those nights
but just remember that you are a fighter.
You never know just what tomorrow holds
And you’re stronger than you know

When the night is closing in
don’t give up and don’t give in.
This won’t last, it’s not the end
You’re gonna be okay

“Out of the depths I call to you, Lord!
Lord, listen to my voice;
let your ears be attentive
to my cry for help.

I wait for the Lord; I wait
and put my hope in his word. 
I wait for the Lord”

Psalm 130:1-2, 5-6

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Can you feel it? Hear it? It is emerging from all over our communities. It comes cloaked in joy, noise, warmth and excitement. It begins to appear when the summer is full, but now it does so boldly, loudly, brightly.

It’s the hustle and bustle of the coming season. It’s the red cups, and colored lights, and festive music, and craft fairs, and peppermint everything, and cardboard packages delivered to our doors.

For the next six weeks this season of celebration will be in the forefront, singing out it’s song in extrovert fashion.

There will be those of us who join in the dance, like a conga line, embracing that which brings us feelings of joy, nostalgia. There will be those who oppose the flamboyance of nativities, conifers and carols, calling them religious indoctrination.

In the midst of this season of hustle and bustle, of financial cost, of parties, and refreshments, and decorating, and songs of the season

quietly grows a branch

Zechariah 6:12 says,
“tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord” (my servant the branch – Matthew Henry Commentary)

Jeremiah 33:15 says,
“In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land” (the branch of righteousness – Matthew Henry Commentary)

Isaiah 11:1 says,
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit” (a rod out of the stem of Jesse and a branch out of his roots – Matthew Henry Commentary)

and Isaiah 4:2 says,
“in that day the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory” (the branch of the Lord – Matthew Henry Commentary)

Christ is the branch that grows, whose arrival is reason for the season … but Christ is not the reason for the hustle and bustle.

The environment of Christ’s birth was filled with hustle and bustle. His parents had travelled to the homeland of his earthly father, Joseph, to be counted for taxation purposes of the government. Bethlehem was packed with the noise and smells and stresses of the people and animals that descended on the town.

Advent, the season of anticipation, of waiting, has not even begun … but still, in the hustle and bustle grows a branch. In the quiet, it grows, stretching out, for us … to give life, to produce the fruits of this branch.

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave.

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Merry Christmas!

As this day dawns, our souls sing Joy to the World, as the Silent Night has birthed a new day with the angels singing, Glory to the new born King.

This is the day that advent prepares us for, the day that love came down.

God sent his son, to give us hope that we might know of his kingdom, that we might have our sins forgiven (and forgotten), that we might have his Spirit to guide us, that we might return to the beauty of Eden, where we can walk and talk with God himself.

There is no message more important, more practical, more true than this:

“For God so loved the world
that he gave his one and only Son, 
that whoever believes in him shall not perish
but have eternal life. 
For God did not send his Son into the world 
to condemn the world,
but to save the world through him.”

John 3:16

For redemption is the best theme of any story, for it is the theme of our story … we are reminded today of that offering of redemption … we just have to choose to receive it, hands and heart open.

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