Although I grew up celebrating Christmas, it was not until recently that my family and I began to observe Advent more in earnest. During the last several years, we began reading through the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament throughout the month of December. Our church annually held candlelight Christmas Eve services. We bought our own wreath with pink, lavender and white candles. We struggled year to year to find a devotional that seemed right for us.
I was eager to write down my own thoughts around the profound gospel message of Advent and Christmas. While my kids worked on math or grammar at the kitchen table during our home school year, I stole fifteen or twenty minutes here and there, delving into Scripture and the unfathomable idea that God would love us so much that he would become human.
This idea of incarnation from a God who loves us and longs deeply for us seems rich with meaning and significance far beyond the scope of one holiday season. It has been a spiritually rewarding experience to attempt to articulate the implications of God being one of us. In living a small, specific life, Jesus shows us he understands, he loves, he walks alongside us. There is so much comfort and challenge in that!
Immanuel: When God Was One Us is available through Amazon both in paperback and Kindle editions. I pray it may be a help during these times of chaos and stress and distraction.
from the Preface:
Christmas is a favorite time of year for many people, and for many, it is the most stressful or depressing. My desire is that this book may be an encouragement to both. In acknowledging both the joy and anguish of the season, we honor our dependence on God in a genuine way. It is my hope that this daily devotional will help quiet and focus our minds and hearts to celebrate and worship the Savior who came down to be one of us….In whatever way you participate, I pray you experience the truth of his presence, and eagerly await with me his final Advent.
Today, I would like to share a Christmas poem with you. It is by one of my favorite contemporary poets, Wendell Berry. I am not sure it is really a Christmas poem in the most traditional sense, for I think part of the poem speaks to the ordinariness of the moment. So much of the time we want Christmas to be extraordinary.
I appreciate authors who remind us of the holiness and the beauty in daily routines. I love when someone can effectively point and say to me, “Look. Don’t forget to notice this. Here is the divine thumbprint right here in the middle of your day.” Berry does this beautifully with his suggestions and anticipations of the holy family appearing in an ordinary barn.
So much of the time I fight against compartmentalizing holy things and ordinary things, spiritual and earthy. But Berry’s poem here showcases what the Gospels also do in extraordinary ways: it points out that we are not unreasonable to think that the most marvelous things can appear on a Tuesday, in the middle of a routine we have encountered countless times before.
Berry’s caution is that we be ready to see the holy.
Christ came not when we were ready, but when he was.
This has been a difficult year for us. It has been a particularly difficult year for my husband who lost his father just at the end of September after long, strenuous health issues. He has shouldered a good bit of stress at work, and we have been stretched to our parenting limits this year. Can you relate? Christmas may have come this year with us feeling weary and unprepared. There is, somehow, good news in this.
The grace of the embodiment of God on earth is partially wrapped in the fact that we were still a mess upon his arrival. We were far from ready. We had forgotten to be expectant, and had instead grown hurried, harried, and lacking in purpose. Christmas arrived before all the cookies were baked and frosted, it arrived before packages were wrapped and bows tied. We were caught in the middle of some major mishaps. Our lives were ugly and twisted. We had forgotten to hope.
The shepherds were leaning on their staffs, cleaning the excrement from their sandals when the heavens were ripped open and angels burst in chorus above their heads. And even Anna, (Luke 2:36-38) who was waiting in the house of the Lord, may have risen from a despondent corner of the temple, doubting anything hopeful would ever happen to her again.
We were distracted and agitated and frazzled. But then, before Mary had time to prepare a nursery, he was born. Before we tied up the loose ends, and resolved the mess our lives had become, he came. While we were embarrassed, stressed, anxious, and lonely, he arrived, donning tendons and truth. Or we were proud, arrogant, and crass, yet he wouldn’t wait for us to clean our lives up. He would not. We couldn’t.
As his infantile arms flailed erratically, he waved them about and cried, “Behold, I am new! Look, I will live next door. I make everything new!” (Revelation 21:5).
As he breathed on Mary’s cheek, so he had once breathed in us the breath of life. As his divinity seemed to take on a weaker nature, he poured into us his spirit of hope (Romans 5:5).
He came when he was ready, not when I was.
As I vacuum the house in preparation for Christmas guests, I feel the frustration of an imperfect house. It will not all get done. Let’s face it, with three boys, and trying to squeeze in time for a math lesson, is the house ever clean? There will most assuredly be dusty surfaces and blankets piled in a corner. It is an imperfect house full of imperfect people. If I am not ready with the house cleaning, how much more unprepared am I with my spiritual life? My soul needs dusting and there are certainly things I need to purge from my character. If I can welcome family into an imperfect home, then I can welcome this Savior into my imperfect world. He is here! Joy to the world!
His uncoordinated knees knock together as he now kicks, but his movements proclaim, “Come to me. My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30). And Mary, not having prepared perfectly for his arrival, picks up her burden, snuggles him deeply, and discovers, it is indeed light.
Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
A frequent greeting which falls from our lips this time of year is “Are you ready for Christmas?” And by this we mean, have you finished your Christmas shopping, do you have the meals shopped for and planned out, do you know where all the relatives will sleep, or how you will get to both sides of the family on Christmas Eve. We might rethink our intentions with this inquiry.
Are you ready?
Are you eagerly awaiting what has been long promised you? Are you resting in exuberant hopefulness? Is the Advent of the Son foremost in your thoughts? Are you ready to celebrate his once-upon-a-time birth and his most assured return?
May we be open to receiving the divine in our life. May we be open to recognizing the blessings and the light, just as the wise men recognized the bright, auspicious star. May we make room for him as we make room for the others before us who need a place to stay, a warm meal, or a sympathetic ear. Are we ready to welcome him as we welcome others in our lives? As we wait this advent, may we grow into a reflection of the holy Infant’s abiding love.
Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!
“Come and lie down with me, Mom! Just for a minute.” Exhausted, and ready to be on my own, my six-year-old pleads with me to snuggle in bed with him as I tuck him in for the night. His safari bedsheets and fleece dinosaur pajamas create quick, blue sparks with each wiggle. I would never have volunteered this on my own, but once I lay down, I realize the simple blessing my son has given me. It is something I will remember. We are having a moment, together. It quiets me, and I can feel the roughness and chaos of the day slowly ebbing from my fingertips and the top of my head. I let out a sigh.
“Aah, this was a good day.” G smiles under the covers.
And it was. I had just forgotten. I had chosen stress instead of appreciation and gratitude, so it had seemed rushed. I had felt there were so many things to get done that day, but that moment, cuddled up in whispers, there in my son’s twin-sized bed, I had been given the most productive part of my day. And that is what I am choosing to remember. I hope he does, too.
In the past couple of weeks, a few different people have encouraged me to ask my children to name their favorite family Christmas tradition. All children love receiving presents, and sometimes it seems our family doesn’t do anything particularly unique to any other American family for Christmas. Sometimes, I wonder what they will really remember about our family traditions once they are grown. I encourage you to ask your own children. It may surprise you once you do. To be honest, I half expected my own boys to shrug their shoulders, and not know what to say. However, they each had a ready answer. Their answers made me smile for their simplicity, like taking a moment to lie down on a bed, and for the fact that I recognized our particular family through their responses. We do celebrate in special ways I believe they will remember.
Here is how they answered:
G ‘s favorite is eating chocolate croissants on Christmas morning after emptying the stockings.
A likes picking out his own new Christmas ornament each year at Cracker Barrel or Kohl’s, and he likes the beautiful candle light Christmas Eve service at our church.
S remembers eating Trader Joe’s Panettone every year since he was little. Seriously, he would sit and eat an entire one on his own if I let him.
Nothing special….except that they are. They are special memories because they have become something we expect. They began effortlessly and unintentionally, but have become part of our favorite traditions. They are foods and moments and shared experiences. We can’t imagine the holiday, our life, our relationships without them. You may go to Trader Joe’s and enjoy the panettone, but in no other house does it taste as sweet as in ours.
Candles and pastries and ornaments. A quiet moment lying together on the bed. This is what they’ll remember.
“The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled;
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.”
May you be still, and at peace. May
you know the message the Angels still sing. May we be like Elisha and his servant whose eyes were opened to perceive the ancient heavenly armies about him (2 Kings 6:17). May our ears likewise be opened to hear the angels sing.
Peace. Good news. Joy to the world.
He has come!
Someone asked me a day or two ago if my kids were getting antsy during our school time, ready for Christmas. I laughed out of frustration, admitted they were and questioned why in the world they should be. I mean, we took a large chunk of time off in November, going to Florida earlier in the month, and then spending a week down south at Oma’s and Opa’s. But it’s true. When there is an impending holiday, it IS hard to keep your nose to the grind stone, regardless of how much time you have had off previously.
We are struggling to teach new concepts at this point, and are basically treading water. My attempts at simplifying include possibly cutting grammar down to one more lesson until the new year (or possibly out altogether until after the new year). This is both for their sanity’s sake as well as my own. We are plodding through with math, happily continuing with volume four of Story of the World, and doing bits of reading and answering questions for science. I hope the older two are enjoying our Christmas read alouds, as well as the novels they are reading on their own.
As for my five-year-old G, he drifts in and out of our read aloud, depending on the story. He and I always read at bedtime. Currently, we are making our way slowly through Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Sometimes he wants to read out loud to me, but will only do so if it is Honus and Me by Dan Gutman, a book series A enjoyed a few years ago. The last week or so he is constantly trying to escape from me. He wants to play by himself, or most often with S. He has become increasingly more difficult to find in a compliant frame of mind for anything having to do with kindergarten curriculum. I think he needs a break from me. I am trying not to burden him with too many “have tos” this month.
Today after building with our citiblocs and our calendar time I let him play alone, collected paper and cookie cutters, and invited him back to make an advent calendar.
Don’t judge. We are not a crafty bunch here, and this was a spur of the moment thing. He chose the gingerbread man shape. We’ll remove one figure from the stairway each night before going on up to bed. Only two more weeks! In the meantime, we wait…
We wait for cookies and friends, for outings about town and unwrapping presents. We wait. Just as so many people have waited throughout the years for an answer, a lightening of their loads, waiting with anticipation and trepidation and waiting in faith.
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to…live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope- the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ..
If someone were to ask me what my favorite topics are during our homeschool day, I would have to include history, but the read alouds are by far my favorite. Even before we began homeschooling, even before I began bandying about the term “read aloud,” well, really long before my boys were even crawling, we have read together. While there are many wonderful academic and professional articles explaining the benefits of reading aloud to our children, the most profound reason for me is the shared vocabulary and language we acquire together. By this I do not exactly mean that we learn new vocabulary words together, or write down definitions from a dictionary, but rather our hearts speak the same language because we have traveled together through the pages of historical fiction, biographies, fantasies, allegories and adventures.
There are times when a single word conveys more than if one of us had spent dozens of words describing a scene. How powerful and fraught with meaning the following:
C A I R P A R A V E L
the unbreakable vow
churning butter with Ma
“All’s well that ends well.” coxswain landlubber
“no good, dirty rotten, pig-stealing great great grandfather.”
S T A Y G O L D.
You may or may not recognize all these references. I know my boys will certainly know the context and significance of each and every one. And if we are having a bad day, or we need a quick reminder of our bond, if we want to explain a correlation, or illustrate a similarity, we have the common (literary) language with which to do so.
Like most years, I am finding this season hectic. In looking for a balance between a manageable school load, and maintaining a home, it is difficult to determine what is necessary. Although I refuse to give up read alouds, I wasn’t sure we would have the stamina to begin a fresh book at this time of year. So, what follows is our list of seasonal short stories and excerpts, nearly all set at the Christmas season.
We have only read a few so far, and who knows in what order we will share them, but here is our Christmas 2015 read aloud list (not including our advent reading, of course). These are stories hand picked in hopes of promoting a true spirit of generosity, goodness, kindness and compassion that may long carry my boys past the holiday season. Admittedly, it is a challenge to find read alouds simple enough for the five year old, yet engaging enough for the 12 and 13 year olds. The following list combines some tales with thought provoking stories with complex vocabulary for the older two, as well as simpler stories which should be nostalgic for them. If someone barely in their teens can feel nostalgia.
As we recall these stories we might contrast Scrooge with Stefan Avdeyitch. We may see similarities in Jo March and Anne Shirley. Whatever may come out of our reading, I hope it will ignite dialog and bind us closer together. I hope you enjoy this list, or create one of your own. Please share if you do.
God bless us, everyone!
CHRISTMAS Reading list 2015:
1.”Where Love Is, God is There Also” by Leo Tolstoy. Technically, this is not a Christmas story, but it does take place in the winter. It quotes so much from the Gospel of Luke and Matthew and concentrates on love for mankind that it exudes the spirit of Christmas without naming it. This is not a children’s story, but one that older children should be able to appreciate. I can hardly make it through the poor cobbler’s tale without my voice cracking at least a bit at the end.
2. Elves and the Shoemaker by Paul Galdone. A classic.
3. from All of a Kind Family Downtown, “Christmas Stockings” by Sydney Taylor. I adored this book series growing up and learned so much about the practices of Jewish holidays from them. Henny and Charlotte were my favorites, but I also harbored a special love toward Guido, their Italian neighbor.
4. “Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry. When I was about A’s age I began saving birthday money and allowances to purchase leather bound books with gold pages. Dickens. Poe. R.L. Stevenson. And finally O. Henry. This Christmas classic is both sad and heart warming. It’s the one where the poor, young couple both get what they want for Christmas…sort of.
5. Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien. I have written about this collection last year. These letters, which the fantasy writer wrote to his children as they were growing up each Christmas, are poignant, in keeping with the times and laugh out loud funny. Hints of his trilogy abound. Goblins appear and make trouble. Polar Bear inevitably saves the day…and the toys.
6. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. No explanation needed. No matter how many movie or play versions you have seen, the original is superb.
7. from Little House on the Prairie, “Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. There are many wonderful Christmas stories from this entire pioneer series, but for some reason this one has always been my guys’ favorite.
8. “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote. Sad , sweet, poignant and almost lyrical in his writing, Capote recounts for us a piece of his childhood long gone. Largely neglected in a small town in Alabama, he and his elderly cousin set out to make fruitcakes for their acquaintances. As a bonus I found this lovely illustrated edition at our library. Even with the lengthy text, it held even G’s interest.
9. from Anne of Green Gables, “Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves” by L. M. Montgomery. Because boys know what it is like to want something so badly, too.
10. “The Burglar’s Christmas” by Willa Cather. A surprising ending. A family reunion. The meaning of grace.
11. from Little Women, “Playing Pilgrims” and “A Merry Christmas” by Louisa May Alcott. Jo and Marmee. Because we may all have presents at Christmas, but there is always something more.
Whether or not you are surrounded by family, or virtually alone, whether or not this has been a good year full of prosperity and joy, or one of struggle and pain, my family and I wish you a merry Christmas.
May the good news the angels proclaimed two millennia ago be true today.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11).
May the ancient prophecies be fulfilled in our hearts.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and you will call him Immanuel [God with us] (Isaiah 7:14).
May you not only be grateful today for the symbol of the cross, but the meaning bursting forth from a tiny feeding trough. May we marvel at the wonder and love of a God who has completely shared, and still shares, in our humanity. God with us. God, a part of us. Love in flesh and blood. Our reason why we search for ways to practice and emulate grace for those without.
For we do not have a [Christ], who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16).
It is unlikely that I could ever over exaggerate the significance Tomie de Paola has had on my children’s early years of reading. For family and humor, we have read Tom, for silliness we visit Strega Nona and Big Anthony, and for culture and language, we love Tony’s Bread and Days of the Blackbird. However, Jingle the Christmas Clown is new to us this year. I am reading it with G for the first time. He has chosen it on his own to be our book of the week. We must have read it ten or twelve times this week alone. Funny, because flipping through it at the library I wasn’t all that impressed. Isn’t it interesting how a book often expresses its magic only once you read it with your little one?
Not only has G expanded his Italian (I have caught him greeting me with a Buon Natale, and addressing one of his stuffed buddies as bambino mio), but has completely fallen in love with the book’s characters. Whether it is because of the funny, frenetic monkeys or the baby animals’ saddened eyes, G continues to pay more attention to the illustrations and details in the text with each reading.
Unable to perform for the nearly abandoned Italian village, il circo piccolo– the little circus- moves on to the next town, leaving Jingle and the baby animals to rest with the elderly citizens. While the ending miracle seems a bit trite, G smiles every time. The beauty of the little tale is in its spirit of giving. As the vecchietti– the “old-timers”- brighten at Jingle’s gift of Christmas, the real miracle of the story happens back in the middle of the book.
Now Jingle began to feel sorrier for the villagers than for himself and the baby animals.
This line alone made Tomie de Paola’s story of joy and giving well worth multiple readings….at least for G. I love sharing stories that demonstrate kindness and empathy, especially toward others so dissimilar on the surface.
Included is a recipe for stelline d’oro- golden star cookies, which are part of the final miracle. The recipe was created by PBS’s Mary Ann Esposito, host of Ciao Italia. This basic sugar cookie recipe has the extra delight of orange juice mixed in the dough as well as in the icing.