O Come All Ye Faithful

In 1954, Perry Como released a Christmas song that reached #8 on the record charts. The lyrics are still familiar over five decades later:

Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays

‘cause no matter how far away you roam

If you want to be happy in a million ways

For the holidays, you can’t beat home, sweet home.

Americans agree with Como’s sentiments. According to AAA, last year over 65 million people traveled 50+ miles away from home over Christmas and New Year’s. Many of us were among that number.

The holidays can become a logistical nightmare of travel plans and itineraries. We split our time between family and friends, in-laws and outlaws, blended and unblended families. Our families have become like an order of hash browns at Waffle House: scattered, covered, and smothered!

In the midst of the holiday madness, consider a change in your travel plans. Include a trip to Bethlehem in your Christmas itinerary. During this holiest of seasons, let us begin to make our way to the manger.

In 1743,  John Wade published a hymn that invites us to the city of Jesus’ birth:

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,

O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem

Come and behold him, born the King of angels;

O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

As we travel to Bethlehem, we will be amazed at those who have gone before us. According to Luke’s gospel, Joseph and Mary first made the trip because Caesar Augustus demanded a census of the entire Roman Empire. So the Holy Couple traveled to the home town of Joseph’s family. When they arrived, there was no room in the inn, so they settled into a small stable.

The actual account of the Christ’s child’s birth is told in a few short verses. Matthew simply says: Mary gave birth to a son. And Joseph gave him the name Jesus. (Matthew 1: 25). Luke writes: While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her first-born, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger . . . . (Luke 2: 6-7)

The Nativity is a simple scene with only Mary, Joseph, and their newborn baby present. Contrary to popular belief, the Gospel writers don’t even mention an assortment of barnyard animals at the stable. However, the Holy Family was not alone. The host of heaven gathered that night to witness the Word of God made flesh. Cosmic events set into motion since Eden’s Garden were coming to fruition that night in Bethlehem.

When Peter wrote about Christ’s incarnation in his first letter to the church, he declared that even angels long to peer into these things. (1 Peter 1: 12) Unseen by human eyes, the angelic chorus that proclaimed the Messiah’s birth gathered around the manger in wonder and awe. Their words echo in the carol:

Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation;

O sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!

Glory to God, all glory in the highest!

The shepherds were the first to hear the angels’ news. They crowded into the stable, smelling of campfire smoke, damp wool, and long days in the fields. Then the shepherds returned to their flocks, glorifying God for what they had witnessed. Months—or even years—later the magi also arrived from the Far East with their extraordinary gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

We too are called to kneel at the manger in wonder and awe. Come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord! May you have a grace-filled Christmas.

O Come Let Us Adore Him


The Five Senses of Christmas

five senses christmasSights of Christmas:

The world wrapped in holiday colors of red, green, silver, and gold. Crimson berries nestled in emerald green holly leaves. Wreath-clad doors, mailboxes garbed with garland scarves, and shrubs robed in lights. Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown, Ebenezer Scrooge, and the Little Drummer Boy on TV. The “Big Tree” towering over Lenox Square. Piled gifts spilling beyond the sheltering arms of a Christmas tree’s embrace. On, off, on, off, on, off, on, off of blinking bulbs. Windows alight in warm candle glow. Stockings hung by the chimney with care. Cardboard manager characters casting long shadows in floodlight. “Kiss-me-quick” mistletoe dangling from doorways. Diamond stars displayed on a black velvet night. Clydesdale horses stomping through a Currier and Ives winter wonderland. Santa Claus swooshing down a snow-covered hillside on a Norelco electric razor. Traffic-jammed mall parking lots. Church pageant children clothed in oversized bathrobes, cardboard wings, and pipe-cleaner halos.

Sounds of Christmas:

Salvation Army, red kettle ringers. Jingle bells jangling. Salutations of “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” Crackling fires of wood and gas. Mailboxes crammed with catalogs, cards, invitations, and bills. Carolers’ off-key singing. Horn blare of traffic jams. Canned carols endlessly looping on store speakers. “Blue Christmas,” “The Hallelujah Chorus,” and “Mama got ran over by a reindeer” played back-to-back-to-back on the radio. A bedtime story of “’Twas the Night before Christmas.” Children’s Christmas morning squeals of surprise, delight, and excitement.

Smells of Christmas:

Dusty boxes of attic-stored decorations.  Fir-scented Christmas tree smell. Hickory wood smoke wafting from ice-frosted chimneys. Oven roasted turkey basting. Sugar cookies baking. Cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, peppermint, and allspice. Apple cider simmering on the stove. Flavored coffee steaming in a mug.

Feelings of Christmas:

Sticky, sappy, prickly, pine boughs. Polar breezes that cut through pants to discover where underwear ends. Cozy down comforters for long winter’s naps. Fleece, flannel, wool, fur, cashmere, leather, velvet, cardigan, and cotton clothes. Overcoats, gloves, hats, and scarves. Candy-cane kisses from a candy-smeared child. Children lying awake on Christmas Eve, knowing the night will never pass. Home for the holidays. The presence of loved ones, both present and absent.

Tastes of Christmas:

Anjou pears, red delicious apples, navel oranges. Hot cocoa with sliver sprinkles of chocolate and topped with marshmallows. Sweet eggnog sprinkled with cinnamon. Honey ham, sweet potato soufflé, cornbread dressing, and deviled eggs. Gingerbread dunked in milk. Unopened fruit cake “regifted” from person to person, family to family, home to home, year to year. Chex mix baked with butter and garlic. Some homemade pumpkin pie.

The Five Senses of Christmas:

In the Gospels, one title given to Jesus is “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.” For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, God’s grace is all about us in these Holiest of Days. During this Christmas season, see, hear, smell, touch, and taste that the Lord is good!

The Reindeer Rule

For forty years, the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island sponsored a downtown Christmas display. The exhibit featured a traditional nativity scene surrounded by secular symbols of the season. The shepherds and wise men were flanked by plastic reindeer, candy striped canes, a Christmas tree, and Santa Claus.

In the early eighties, a group of local citizens filed a lawsuit, claiming the display violated the “Establishment Clause” of the U. S. Constitution. The case of Lynch v. Donnelly went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1984, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the city. Pawtucket could continue to sponsor the nativity scene.

Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote the majority opinion. The decision declared that the Christmas display recognized “the historical origins of this traditional event long (celebrated) as a National Holiday,” and that its primary effect was not to advance religion. “The display is sponsored by the city to celebrate the Holiday and to depict the origins of that Holiday. These are legitimate secular purposes.” The benefit to religion was called “indirect, remote, and incidental.”

The Reindeer Rule

The Reindeer Rule

The court decision derisively became known as “The Plastic Reindeer Rule.” Secular decorations diluted the nativity scene enough to make it “acceptable” for worldly purposes. Chief Justice Warren Burger’s opinion revealed a keen insight into American culture. Our society tolerates religion in small amounts. Religious displays are socially acceptable only when counterbalanced by secular symbols.

The world continually attempts to dilute the Christmas and Christian message. During the past four decades, we have witnessed a sea change in the United States. Educators dare not mention the C word of “Christmas” in class. Our children go on “Winter Break.” On many town squares, a “Holiday Tree” adorns the downtown plaza.

Merchants wish their customers a generic “Happy Holidays.” The Salvation Army is banned from stores. Manger scenes on public property must blend into secular displays.  And the baby Jesus lying in the manger has the same significance as a plastic Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Since Christ’s coming, there have been regular, repeated attempts to water down Christianity into a tasteless gruel. Compromise, tolerance, and political correctness seek to create a faith that is palatable and acceptable to all while offending none.

Public displays of the manger scene have become the lightning rod for such sentiment. If crèches cannot be eliminated entirely, then the world will dilute the message with secular symbols. Ultimately, the Lynch v. Donnelly decision proved to be a hollow victory for the church, equating the Son of God with an artificial woodland animal.

For the animal lovers among us, let me assure you that I have nothing against plastic reindeer. Like any good redneck, I have featured a couple of lighted deer adorning my side yard in the past. However, they cannot take the place of the Manger Scene.

The Christian faith IS offensive. It offends the sensibilities of a society hell-bent on destruction. It offends the tolerance of political correctness that gives equal value to mangers and reindeer. It offends the sinfulness inherent in every human by calling us to change. Little wonder the world is offended by the manger scene. The reaction to a seemingly innocuous display reveals God’s power to save!

We should not be surprised that the world fears the manger scene. “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” During Advent and Christmas, reindeer don’t rule—Emmanuel, God with us, does.

Happy Holy Days!

A Christmas IQ Test

IQDuring December, I enjoy giving small groups A Christmas IQ Test. The questions are based on the Biblical accounts of Christ’s birth.

People are often surprised to discover that much of what they “know” about Christmas actually comes from TV specials, greeting cards, holiday songs, legend, and tradition. Today I invite you to test your Christmas intelligence quotient. Is your knowledge about “the reason for the season” based on Matthew and Luke or Currier and Ives?

Q1:      Christmas has always been celebrated on December 25.

A1:      False. No one knows the exact date of Jesus’ birth. In a prior calendar, December 25 originally marked the Winter Solstice. The church “baptized” the date to celebrate the advent of “the light of the world” during the fourth century.

Q2:      What did the innkeeper say to Mary and Joseph?

A2:      According to tradition, the innkeeper said, “There is no room in the inn.” Despite countless children’s plays to the contrary, however, the innkeeper does not have any speaking lines in the Biblical accounts.

Q3:      Who saw the star in the east?

A3:      The wise men saw the star in the east. Many Christmas cards show the shepherds following the star to the manger; however, the shepherds went to Bethlehem after the angelic chorus announced the Christ’s birth.

Q4:      How many wise men made the journey?

A4:      Most people know the correct answer is “three.” Most people are wrong! The Bible never mentions how many wise men came to see the newborn king. They DID bring three gifts. By the way, they were not kings, either. So the carol “We Three Kings” is inaccurate in every detail!

Q5:      What is frankincense and myrrh?

A5:      My favorite response is that frankincense is “an eastern monster story!” In reality, it is a precious perfume. Myrrh is a spice often used for preparing bodies for burial—a strange gift for a newborn. Even at his birth, the babe of Bethlehem was also the Christ of the cross and the Lord of the empty tomb.

Q6:      Where did the wise men find the baby Jesus?

A6:      Months and even years may have passed before the wise men arrived. According to the Matthew’s account, they found the Holy Family in a home and not a stable.

Q7:      Which animals does the Bible say were present at Jesus’ birth?

A7:      Don’t throw away your manger scene’s barnyard menagerie, but the Gospels say nothing about any animals at the nativity.

Q8:      Where do I find the Christmas story in the Bible to check these answers?

A8:      Matthew and Luke contain the stories of Jesus’ birth. Matthew focuses upon Joseph and includes the wise men. Luke focuses on Mary and describes the angels appearing to the shepherds.

During Christmas, many families enjoy the tradition of reading holiday books together. In addition to other seasonal classics, I encourage you to include the Gospel accounts of the first Christmas in your reading time as well.

By the way, according to the author, there WILL be an end-of-the-book test!