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Thursday, December 24, 2015

When the "Where Are You, Christmas?" Question becomes a Blessing

The winter sun wears a crooked smile as it slants angle and warmly contrary through bare branches, across crunchy leaves, over my bare feet, and it grins wide open and as delighted as spring on my upturned face.

It's the day before Christmas.

Gingerbread Men are stacked on the kitchen counter. Thumbprint cookies rolled in toasted walnuts with dabs of fig preserves in the centers are wrapped in parchment and stored in the Christmas cookie jar painted all festive red poinsettias and green leaves on an ivory background. A neighbor friend gave it to me many Christmases ago when our children woke before the sun rose on Christmas morning. The cookie jar was filled with Christmas cookies then, and every Christmas since the jar has held a belly full of cookies.

The tree is lighted and decorated, and so is the house. Christmas music plays and gifts are arranged on the fireplace hearth.

"It doesn't feel like Christmas!" It 's not really a complaint, because who complains about Christmas. It's an observation. I've heard it many times this month from my own family and from the store clerk.

Songs like, "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," and "We Need a Little Christmas, Right This Very Minute,"play.

Well, I'm sitting in by backyard just bathing my face in 70 degree crooked smile splayed oblivious across the face of the sun and, yeah, it doesn't feel like Christmas. It doesn't.

Crispy leaves lift and skitter in the sun. A bee bumbles inches above patio stones and a cricket is swimming in the pool and,"Praise God! It doesn't feel like Christmas!" My Bell Pepper plant is still green and roses blush like the rouged cheeks of a woman advanced in years who just learned that she is expecting her first child.

I open my Bible and gentle gusts of warm wind help me turn worn aged pages to the gospel of Luke. I read about a certain priest named Zacharias who was visited by the angel Gabrielle who told him, "Your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John" (Luke 1:11-13).

He said to the angel, "I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years." I read it and I hear it the same way as I hear, "It doesn't feel like Christmas!"

"She's too old! I'm too old!" sounds like, "There's no snow! I'ts not cold!"

The angel Gabrielle muted Zacharias.

Elizabeth conceived, and what could Zacharias say? Nothing!

I decided to mute myself after hearing, "It doesn't feel like Christmas," one time too many, and agreeing one time too many.

"Christmas isn't a feeling," is how I choose to silently respond.

I'm feeling a warm sun and balmy breeze this morning, and "Praise God! Christmas isn't a feeling!" rustles through the likes of barefoot me.

Christmas Cookies

Elizabeth "Hid herself for five months," I read.

So, Zacharias is mute and Elizabeth is on retreat. How quiet! How quiet the preparation for the birth of the one named John who would prepare the way for the Savior. The very Prince of Peace!

"Thus the Lord has dealt with me," said Elizabeth in hiding, "in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people."

"Oooh, Lord," I quietly amaze. "Haaa," my breath draws up long and it's whole sentence. "Elizabeth delivered the baby, son of Zacharias, whose birth would take away her reproach among people."

I think of the Babe who Mary would deliver; the Son of God, born to take away our, your and my, reproach.

Jesus, only Jesus, can take away our reproach; our sin and shame.

This feels like Christmas!

I continue to read that after five months in hiding, the "sixth month the angel Gabrielle was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary" (Luke 1:26-27). The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35).

"This feels like Christmas to me, Lord." It does. This is the quiet, hidden, holy Selah pause which mutes and slows the foundation of my soul. Snow mutes and slows things like traffic and busy noise; but not the soul.

Leaves rattle, birds sing, yellow dog nudges me for a biscuit. We, rather yellow dog, goes to patio door wagging and panting all happy anticipation.

But I stop half-way across the patio. I stop because the wind builds suddenly and loudly. It rushed forward till bare Pecan branches and the full Junipers wave madly and pant with the exertion. I watch, half expecting to see a dove fly all white overheard. Something holy in that rush.

"Is this what it sounded like when Gabrielle spoke?" I wonder about wind and angels' wings.

Yellow dog insists, and we go inside.

Christmas music is playing. My Bavarian German husband has Christmas in his genes. "Silent Night" is playing as I come inside on this soul silent morning.

I've done all the traditional Christmas things.

I've braved the traffic and stood in line at the post office.

I've gone a little over budget, just a little, because I keep wanting to give.

I wonder to this Prince of Peace, "What does the exchange of gifts, the decorated tree, the trimmed up house, the baking, and the needy desire for snow have to do with unfathomable gratefulness that You were born to gift me with eternal life?" I honestly don't know because these things seem far removed from Elizabeth's five month retreat to ponder the miracle of the babe in her elderly womb; and from muted doubts, and from the overlapping nine months on nine months, Elizabeth's and Mary's quiet pregnancies.

Two babies would be presented and loudest baby cries wouldn't be heard in a ranting, rushing world.

What's a baby's cry to anyone but the mother who drips milk at the sound?

What are trees that breathe furious fast in a sudden wind that raises every branch in it's wake to anyone except those who somehow hear something holy in it all?

Who hears and who responds except those who listen for such things and can tell the difference between voices and winds that blow?

Elizabeth and Mary

Joseph had to go to Bethlehem by Roman tax decree. Mary join him, full of the Son of God.

"Did they rush to Bethlehem?" I can't imagine rushing a pregnant woman on a donkey across the wilderness.

The world rushed. Even then. The boarding in Bethlehem would be first-come, first-served, and no one wanted to be sleeping on the street.

"Who noticed the star announcing the birth of My Son?" He asks me.

Truth is, bright as that star was, the only people mentioned in the Bible who noticed were those calm enough to notice. Slow enough to look up, and quiet enough to hear an angel,

"The shepherds." I begin to answer Him, "and the magi came later, right?"  They watched and waited, and knew when to come.

I pause.

"Why not most of the people in Bethlehem? They were right there!" I'm picturing it and really, weren't crowds the same then as they are now? Elbows out. Heads down. Looking out for number one. Crowds are competitive like that, I think.

I want to be as shepherd. And as Elizabeth; and Mary. I do.

"You are hidden in Me." I know that's what He says. "I've given you sheep to tend with a quiet and gentle spirit." This is also what He says.

I'm hidden. Set apart to care for sheep, and I'm grateful.

I 'm pondering these things in my heart, as Mary pondered and, I'm certain, as Elizabeth pondered while in retreat for five months.

I'm preparing and delivering the Prince of Peace to a rushing loud world.

I'm redeeming time like this in a world where the days are long and time is short and I'm learning spend the time I redeem on Jesus, the Redeemer.

I'm striving to enter peace in a world that doesn't understand that the purpose for striving is to enter stillness. I don't know how it's done, but I do know it happens somehow in the practice.

I'm practicing on purpose today. I'm busy, yeah, and hurl fast down the freeway in traffic; and then crawl in a congested construction zone. I'm practicing stillness at 65 mph, well, okay, 70 mph; and practicing stillness in the crawl. Somehow stillness and rest have little to do with the speed of rush or of standstill.

The cars on the exit ramp to a shopping center spill onto freeway lane. The ramp isn't long enough to hold them. Christmas shoppers, mostly.

Sometimes I feel like a stranger in a rushing world. I just don't fit in when I think things like, Why do we give gifts to everyone but the One whose birth we are celebrating?

Who does that? Who celebrates the birth of a loved one by giving gifts to one another and forgetting the one who the celebration is for? It's an elbows-out kind of question that jostles. The answer is that I know no one who celebrates birthday's like that; unless they're celebrating the birth of Christ. I know. It jostles kind of hard.

"It's not because we give gifts, or decorate, is it?" I ask God why we forget His Son when we celebrate His birth and the question makes me sad.

I think about this Son of God, Jesus, for whose birth Mary gave herself. She gave up so much. Her reputation, her hometown, her body, her lifestyle, her sense of security. I

I think about the presence of the Son of God. His presence, undeniable as Mary's belly swelled and divided her family, Joseph's heart, and the entire town of Nazareth before He was born.Divisions like these are awkward, and painful, ostracizing, and terrifying. Those who wanted to believe the best about Mary, wanted to believe that the Holy Spirit was the father, must have had a crisis of faith. Maybe they reasoned, "Mary is either highly favored of God, or Mary is lowest sinner deserving to be stoned to death."

Joseph woke from a dream with holy reassurance and direction.

Elizabeth believed. She carried Jesus' predecessor, John the Baptist.

Elizabeth and Mary, what a pair!

Elizabeth delivered a baby who grew into a man who ate locusts and honey and wore camel skin and lived a rag-a-muffin rough life in the wilderness. I can only imagine what he was like as a boy! "Mommy! Look!" And Elizabeth would gasp as little Johnny dipped a locust in honey and popped it into his mouth.

Mary delivered a Baby who would become a Man who was also God and who would save people from hell, and would raise people from the dead, and who would be raised from the grave and hell Himself. I imagine Him as a boy. "Mommy! Look!" And Mary would quietly ponder with maybe a worry wrinkle as little Jesus practiced carpentry with two-by-fours and nails and hammered together a crucifix. I don't imagine one of his sister's dolls hanging on it; no, I imagine it empty and His sister's grateful.

Mary yielded, and was freed from the confines of all she gave up. Isn't that what happens when we listen for, and prepare to yield to, the Spirit? I can't say Gabrielle has visited the likes of me, but the Holy Spirit has.

Isn't the breath of the Spirit, the holy exhale of everything all "God is Alive and God is Good" vapor between the choice of yielding to my will or to God's?

Maybe the breath of God is heard by those like Mary and Elizabeth and the likes of Zacharias who hears that his prayer has been heard and then doubts it because, "Surely God isn't that good; is He?" Isn't it a blessing when God just shuts our mouths mute?

Maybe the breath of God is heard by those who choose a quiet life tending sheep till they begin to look a bit wooly themselves, in a world that demeans the humble.

Maybe the breath of God is heard by those who lean in close enough to kiss His cheek; and close enough to hold Him.

Maybe His breath is felt by those who strive to enter rest in a world that strives restless.

And isn't there tension in breathing? In holding breath as thin as the surface tension of the water Jesus was baptized in by John the Baptizer? In the not-my-will, but-Yours matters as rough as Roman hewn wood, iron nails, thorns, whips, salve, and a hundred pounds of embalming ointment made from myrrh and aloes? In the matters of linen swaddling cloth and burial cloth, and of a large stone only angel strength can roll away?

Isn't there tension in the matter of preparing to celebrate the birth of the Savior, Jesus the Christ, the Prince of Peace who is Emmanuel-God with Us. Mary felt it for sure, and maybe it's still felt. Seems to me it is. Seems to me that's a good thing if it's the holy tension felt in striving for holy still all Selah pause because the birth of Christ stops the heart and soul and feet.

Manger and Cross

"Where are you, Christmas?" I may ask because some things are absent and I miss them this time of the year. Or some people are distant. Or gone. Or some circumstances are far too close to home for comfort at this time of the year.

I ask God, "Make my heart large enough to contain the holy matter which is the stuff of Your life, not mine." I don't know how else to put into words the blessing I'm experiencing by the absence of whatever things aren't the same as they were in Christmases past.

I ask, and somehow the "Where are you, Christmas?" question becomes a blessing felt for real and in real time, because the answer is free from what's absent. So I say, "Praise God! Christmas isn't a feeling! It's just an outrageously holy rush all joy and worship and cheer that has everything to do with recognizing the gift He is.

He who knew not the confines of skin and bones and flesh,was born and wore it.

He who wore glory, wore skin.

He who wore holiness, wore sin.

He who saved mankind, was Son of God, crucified.

He who slept in manger hay, is manger in whom I long to rest.

I pray and somehow the prayer which flows from my heart comes out in rhyme-

Son of man, God and flesh; Son of God, my righteousness. And sin more bitter than gall, is purposed that I would fall. Perhaps sin's calling is high;  what else is strong to fell my pride? And sin's condemning power, compelled me toward salvation's hour!

The stair rail is wrapped in lighted garland and red bows. White lights weave between red vases filled with red poinsettias and the nativity figurines youngest daughter made many years ago are arranged on the dining table with candles. Candles are everywhere.

Yeah, I like decorating for Christmas. But I do it differently now than I did in Christmases past. I stop decorating before I'm done. I stop when I hear in my spirit, "That's good. Stop." I strive to stop. It's not easy to stop before I'm done, because it's difficult to yield. But when I yield, something marvelous happens.

I am freed!

When I yield to the Spirit, I'm freed from my will.

written by: Carolyn-Elizabeth Roehrig