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Christmas Words of Wisdom

One year the way we decorated for Christmas caught Laurie off guard: we put the Christmas tree in another room. At the time, Laurie was in her early 20s and no longer living at home. Her Mom knew her well and realized she had a way she expected the house to look at Christmas. So, she told Laurie about the change before she came home.

When Laurie arrived, she was very quiet. She walked through the house from room to room, slowly taking in the change. When she finally spoke, she said to her Mom: “I’m glad you told me in advance.” Like Laurie, we have ways we expect Christmas to unfold: the way we decorate the house, the stories we love, the carols we sing, and the ways we celebrate. 

In sharp contrast to our attachment to all that’s familiar about Christmas, the Gospels portray the events surrounding Jesus’ birth as surprising, remarkable, and frightening. For those of us – like Laurie – who look to Christmas for what is known and familiar, the Gospels provide a dramatic reminder. The divine presence breaks into human history in ways that are unexpected and amazing.

The infancy narratives in the Gospels are filled with remarkable events. In Luke’s account, angels make three appearances – to Zechariah, to Mary, and to the shepherds. Each time, their presence is so frightening that their first words reassure those they are visiting not to be afraid. Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah makes clear that history is taking a dramatic turn. The angel announces that the son to be born will be “great in the sight of the Lord.” (Luke 1: 15) John will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1: 17) If I had been in Zechariah’s place, I’m pretty sure I would also have doubted Gabriel’s words: they were too good to be true. Like Zechariah, I would also have been struck dumb.

At least Gabriel’s words to Zechariah were an answer to his prayer. The angel had to take the young peasant girl Mary completely by surprise. Nothing could have prepared her for Gabriel’s appearance or for the angel’s almost unbelievable announcement. Yet, somehow Mary was trusting enough to respond with an unhesitating “YES” – even though she had no way to grasp the unimaginable consequences that would result. Her deep faith led to a complete surrender.

Let’s not forget Joseph. The joyful anticipation of his betrothal quickly takes surprising twists and turns. He was asked to trust dreams that had to be confusing: did he understand what they meant, what were they asking him to do, could he summon the courage to follow them? The Gospels portray the first Christmas as a series of dramatic events that change the course of history. Even those in the middle of the action were left struggling to understand what was happening.

Each year’s Christmas celebration reminds us to be open to the unexpected and mysterious ways that God is with us – even when it frightens us.

Gabriel and the other angels reassure us: “Do not be afraid.” 

All too often, fear and anxiety are relentless companions on the spiritual journey. They accompany us day and night – keeping our minds busy, defining the limits of our comfort zone, and restricting our activities to what is known and comfortable. In the midst of our caution, God may interrupt our lives in a dramatic, angel-like way that is impossible to miss. What is more likely, however, is that Emmanuel will come to us in quiet ways that we might miss, with subtle promptings that urge us to stretch, and with gentle invitations that our fear will tempt us to resist. Our anxiety and fear need to give way to the peace the angels brought to the shepherds. The quiet of that peace urges us to open our hearts so that we are able to recognize and trust the ways that God is with us. 

Mary urges us to commit with a wholehearted “YES.”

When I confront an unexpected invitation to use my gifts to help others, all too often my instinctive response is resistance. My head games start: “Why me? Do I have to?” Getting to “yes” requires quieting the arguments in my head in order to open my heart. My journey to commitment needs to travel from hard-hearted to half-hearted just to get me to the point of begrudging acceptance. Mary’s “YES” is deeper than that by orders of magnitude. Her whole-hearted commitment was “all in” from the start. She trusted God and surrendered to a future that was completely unknown. Her heart led her to “YES,” and mine needs to do so as well.

Joseph encourages us to embrace the journey even though we don’t know where it will lead.

Joseph found himself in a tough spot, and he tried to do the right thing. Matthew tells us he was “righteous” and “unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace.” (Matt 1: 19) Once again, it takes an angel – this time in a dream – to tell him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. When he did so, he had no idea where the journey would lead: to more dreams, escaping Herod’s genocide, traveling to Egypt by night, living in a strange land, and waiting until it was safe to return to some semblance of his former life. What more could God possibly ask of a carpenter? Every father – every parent – takes on unexpected challenges. Joseph accepted one challenge after another – embracing a spiritual journey he never could have imagined.

Laurie isn’t the only one that Christmas has caught off guard. The Gospels reminds us that the events surrounding Jesus’ birth were amazing, mysterious, and frightening. “God with us” is not necessarily a comfort zone experience. Each year, Christmas challenges us to make room for God to enter our lives in unexpected – and even unwanted – ways. Whether our experience of God is dramatic and powerful or quiet and subtle, we are called to open our minds, our hearts, and our whole selves to God with us.

In my imagination, I hear Christmas words of wisdom from those who lived the remarkable events of the first Christmas. The angels appear to tell us not to be afraid. Zechariah is once again able to speak, and he urges us to trust what seems too good to be true. Mary encourages us to respond with an immediate, wholehearted “YES” that emanates from the core of our being. Joseph invites us to embrace the journey trusting that God will see us through every challenge we encounter. Each Christmas, they all conspire to encourage us to embrace the remarkable and unexpected ways that God is with us.

Merry Christmas!

A Christmas Prayer

Emmanuel, God with us

Gift me with the eyes to see your presence in the subtle ways you surround me;

Open my mind, my heart, and my spirit to your will and your way.

Emmanuel, God with us

Help me trust your promise even when it seems too good to be true;

Gift me with the grace to overcome my doubt, fear, and resistance.

Emmanuel, God with us

Draw me ever deeper into my relationship with you;

Help me respond with an unhesitating, wholehearted “YES” to whatever you ask.

Emmanuel, God with us

Help me embrace the journey before me without knowing where it leads;

Give me the wisdom to know what to do and the courage to see it through.

Emmanuel, God with us

Gift me with the peace of Christmas, the peace that only you can give;

Make me be an instrument of that peace – today and every day to come.