A Merry Little Christmas

This Christmas wasn’t been “as planned” in any way, shape, or form. Initially, I was quite disappointed that I’d be having to work on Christmas Day, especially with a new fiance, a sister about to get married, and almost-inlaws to spend time with. I’ve been feeling pretty worn out and run down with work lately, and I wasn’t looking forward to a holiday week, during which I would be exhaustedly trying to keep up the energy to see people and share in the fun and joy of Christmastime while recovering from 24 hour shifts on an ambulance.

Well, a week ago I started feeling puny and got tested for Covid, at the request of my work. Sure enough, I had Covid and was promptly put on quarantine. My family wanted nothing to do with me, since there’s a wedding in two weeks, but my fiance also came down with Covid, and in God’s graciousness it was mild for both of us. We spent our first Christmas together after all.

We’ve already begun making traditions that we will carry into what we trust and pray will be a Christ-honoring marriage. We have been reading an Advent devotional since December 1, which I’m sure will become a tradition for us. We cut and decorated a beautiful spruce tree. We’ve watched It’s a Wonderful Life, and listened to a radio theatre adaptation of Charles’ Dickens beloved Christmas Carol. We’ve baked, and cooked, and worked on a wintry puzzle, a birthday gift to me from his mom. And our Christmas Day, though not what either of us would have chosen, was likewise delightful.

We made crepes for brunch, with homemade yogurt and the last jar of my homemade plum jam from a few summers ago. We also had homemade ricotta cheese and sausage that my rancher man and his brother-in-law made. It was a lovely start to the day. We finished our puzzle, drank coffee, exchanged gifts, went on a walk, made wedding plans, and ate a wonderful dinner of pork roast, grilled cabbage and sweet potatoes, and rice pilaf. We finished the day watching Murder on the Orient Express, an excellent movie for a winter evening.

This Christmas and holiday season is challenging for a lot of people right now. So many people are sick, and beloved Christmas plans and traditions have gotten sidelined in an effort to keep people as healthy as possible. But if those temporary disturbances distract us from the truth of Christmastime and steal our joy, we have repenting to do. The fact of the matter is that the God of the Universe willingly gave up the comfort and perfection of Heaven to stoop to become a mortal man, for the express purpose of dying a grusome death on our behalf, to give us a salvation we could never earn. Don’t let either the enjoyment of this time of year, or the disappointment either, distract you from that.

In spite of everything, this was indeed a Merry Little Christmas.

Let It Ring in Your Hearts

Today is New Year’s Eve. Christmas was 6 days ago. Every year, Christmas approaches with much anticipation. And every year it leaves with a sigh, ho-hum, and back we go to finish out the year. In truth, we’re probably glad when Christmas is over and done with. Sure, it was fun, we have some sweet family memories, less money in our checking account, a gift or two we were probably excited to receive, and it is just time to get on with what remains of the year.

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What a loss. What a loss that we don’t carry with us for the rest of the year, or the whole year, the joy and excitement and awe of the Christmas season. Or is it because we fail to see and experience the joy and excitement and awe that Christmas should bring?

I’m not sure how to properly express the magnitude of all the Christmas means. I suppose I can’t express all, but when I think about our simplistic ways of talking about Christmas, it strikes me how far we miss the mark in understanding, or at least expressing understanding of, any of what Christmas means. Now, I’m not saying we don’t truly understand the implications, if we sit down and think about it, as much as our human minds can understand something so vast, but I wonder if our cute and heartwarming expressions of Christmas, and all the fun we try to cram into the season, affect our reverence and awe. I say “I wonder” more as a way to be tactful. Because in all honesty, I know it does. I know that the cuteness and sweetness and heart-warming-ness can leave our thoughts regarding Christmas devoid of holy reverence, devoid of a true appreciation for what it meant for the God of the Universe to enter into time and space as a man, with the end goal of being the Lamb of Sacrifice to pardon His people for all eternity, with the end end goal of coming back in glory at an unknown-to-us date and time, when He will once again enter into time and space to catch up His people to Himself, perfectly restored spiritually and physically, wiping out sin and evil altogether, and to finally – finally! – bring about a new Kingdom on earth where human beings enjoy perfect fellowship with God and each other. Wow.

We talk about Christmas as a celebration of “Jesus’s birthday,” as if it is simply some heavenly party. Such an understatement. This isn’t just a celestial birthday party. This is a miracle so vast even the angels were awed by it. A Heavenly army joined together to announce the birth of Christ to the frightened shepherds – what glory!
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14)

How much more glorious is the Child they announced! For the whole host of Heaven to come together, it took more than cuteness and sweetness and warm feelings. This story of Salvation, according to Peter, was something “into which the angels long to look.” (1 Peter 1:12) Think about that. Angels – beings who spend their existence in the presence of God Almighty, in the presence of the Godhead, of the entire Trinity together, who witnessed all of the Old Testament and everything leading up to and anticipating God’s descension to us – they were in awe and celebrated. This was a Story they watched unfold with great eagerness. That should be instructive to us.

I think about all the sweet Christmas songs and Christmas characters we want to relate to. Then I think of the innkeeper, a person not even mentioned, but who must have existed. Someone had to show the expectant mother the less than ideal place she was to give birth. Someone had to say, “There isn’t room.” Someone whose only role in the Christmas story is to turn away the earthly parents of the Living God, a man who was so close to the miracle of the Birth of Christ and apparently missed it altogether. We are so close to the Christmas story at Christmas time. And yet we can let the day go by and miss the true Story, or forget about it as soon as December 26th rolls around.

Heaven forbid that characterize us, especially at this time of the year.

Christmas marks a new era of human history, something the secular textbooks acknowledge, even though they’ve changed B.C. and A.D. to other words excluding Christ. They can’t get away from that turning point in history. The centuries and millennia leading up to Christ’s birth were centuries and millennia of distance from God, in a sense. God in His holiness spoke through prophets, and the Holy of Holies in His temple could only be entered by one priest, the High Priest, on one appointed day per year, to offer atonement for his own sins and the sins of the whole nation of Israel. There was a barrier of sacrifices and requirements and holiness and laws, past which there was no hope of approaching God perfectly whole. The Law was meant to bring light to sin, to demonstrate God’s standard and how unreachable it is for fallen mankind. God in His holiness was showing His holiness to a people who, though saved by faith, were bound by an unkeepable Law.

But our celebration of Christmas remembers the dawning of a new era in human history. Christ’s birth marks the era of God’s nearness to humanity. Immanuel. God with us. Christ came, not as a spirit, but as a human person, tangible, visible. He came as the fulfillment of all the prophesies concerning Him, and He came as a prophet, but a prophet the likes of which this world had never seen. He came as the Greater David, a Shepherd-King of the lineage of David, the shepherd-king of Israel, but far surpassing David. He came as the Greater Moses, a Leader who would lead His People out of darkness into the light of God’s eternal kingdom, far surpassing Moses’s temporary deliverance of the Israelites from their Egyptian slavemasters. Jesus came as the Second Adam, the Father of a new family of Heavenly proportions and Heavenly lineage, to restore that fellowship with God that Adam through his sin had lost. Jesus came as the Greater Aaron, a High Priest able to approach God freely, not only once a year, but at all times, to make intersession on our behalf. Jesus came as the Greatest Sacrifice, fulfilling all the centuries of sacrificed lambs and bulls and doves, satisfying with a single act the needed sacrifice to atone for our Cosmic Treason, our innate rebellion against the God and Creator of the Universe.

The Christmas story isn’t just a story of God’s love and redemptive plan to save His people, or a story of His mercy and compassion. The Christmas story – the plan of redemption – is necessary because of mankind’s radical sin, because of our rebellion against our Creator.

The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.

They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3)

The story of the birth in a stable is one piece of the story of judgement, and how God must act to satisfy justice, because He is righteous and good. But because He is loving, He came as a willing substitution to pay the price for our fallenness, our sin, our Cosmic Treason. The birth in the stable isn’t just the mercy part of the story. This is about a fallenness of humanity so profound that it required a miracle as crazy and appalling as a good, righteous, perfect, glorious God to step into our broken world and save us by His own initiative, His own perfect sacrifice. Because it should be appalling. Our need for God should break us, humble us, cause us to love Him even more for the love and patience He has shown to us. This is God willingly coming to willingly die to satisfy the need for payment for sin, thirty-three years after the miraculous birth in Bethlehem, and to satisfy our greatest need, which is to be reconciled to our Heavenly Father.

Why all of this? Because He loves us. “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16) Demonstrating His love to us so radically is so immensely glorifying to Him, we can’t even come close to comprehending it. So yes, this is a story of love. But this isn’t a heartwarming story of love. This is a soul-shaking, earth-shattering, sin-destroying, history-making, life-giving love. And to limit the story in our hearts and minds to being another quip on a greeting card does a severe injustice to the Story of all stories, and robs us of the joy of awe.

How appropriate that we celebrate Christmas in the darkest, coldest time of the year, right before the New Year. How poignant. Don’t let the New Year come and go without wrestling with the magnitude of the Christmas season. The joy of this season should be ours the entire year, if we are in Christ and a member of His family, forgiven and regenerated. The joy of this season should strike us to the heart. Our sweet manger scenes and cute decorations of little feathered-winged baby angels and heartwarming Christmas flicks don’t even come close to communicating the magnitude of the earthquake that shook the world when God entered into time and space in the form of a tiny, vulnerable, helpless infant, a story that climaxed in a bloody Man hanging on a Cross, an instrument of torture, bearing the sins of the world on His shoulders, God the Son separated from fellowship with God the Father. This isn’t a story meant to make us feel warm and pleasant and comfortable. This is a story meant to shake us to the core by this radical demonstration of God’s mercy in response to required justice. This is a story meant to change us.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is from Revelation 21. It always brings a lump to my throat.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

The former things. Sin and death and rebellion, sorrow, pain, loss, worry, fear. All of that, conquered and defeated. God Himself wiping our tears from our eyes. What an image. How about that as the Glory we see in the Manger at Christmastime! Let that ring in your hearts as you ring in the New Year!

Out of Deep Darkness

God had promised a Savior. And for centuries, the Jewish people waited for this Messiah, a mighty king who would storm this earth and defeat their enemies and right all wrongs. Prophets, with words from God, gave glimpses, signs, of what this Savior would look like, what He would do, where He would come from. The Jews waited for this Savior, for a man of stature, of importance, of status and fame. They wanted a king. And they waited. And waited. And waited. But the dimming years trickled by, and the glorious prophesies ceased. For those who waited and hoped, the time must have seemed so long, the years must have seemed so dark, and hope must have seemed so faint.  But the Promise remained.

And finally, into this broken, darkened world, God began to speak once more. Into the darkness, His light burst forth. In the glorious, heavenly brilliance of angels and stars, God relayed this message: “Do not fear.” 

“Do not be afraid, Mary. Do not be afraid, Joseph. Do not be afraid, humble Shepherds.  Magi, draw near. I bring you good news of great joy.” 

The story began to unfold. And as the story unfolded, it was not the story that was expected. This isn’t the story that the Jewish people would have written. This isn’t the story that I would have written. This isn’t how a king is supposed to come. But God is not bound by human prejudice or expectation. To a young woman, a carpenter, and shepherds, angels appeared, ushering them into the glories of God’s plan to rescue this lost and hurting world, and He began to reveal the Savior, His glory.

We live in a land of deep darkness. The hearts of all of us are black with sin. We need hope. And there is hope, in the Light of the World, the Son of God, God Incarnate.

Christmas approaches during the darkest, coldest time of the year. The days are shortest, the nights are longest, and into this deepest darkness comes the celebration of Christ’s coming, a meditation on the glory of Christ and the beauty of God’s redemptive plan that is still being worked out upon this world. He is the one who opens blind eyes and softens hard hearts and whispers truth into deaf ears. He is our Hope, our Light, and our Salvation. And He was poised to descend upon this dark world in a way the world hasn’t been able to forget.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone. (Isaiah 9:2)

God With Us

Christmas Day commemorates a turning point in history – It marks the beginning of the end of the story of redemption and reconciliation with our Creator God. Everything in the Old Testament, everything in history up to that night in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago, points to the coming of a Savior, the need of a Savior, the hope of a Savior. Everything in history since that night has pointed both back to that event, as well as forward to the longed-for day when Christ will return.
IMG_0132It is a day we celebrate with joy, sharing it with those we love, rejoicing, giving to those we love just as God in love gave us the gift of Himself, as the God-man Christ Jesus. He wasn’t just a tiny baby in a feeding trough, but He was God Incarnate, God Himself come to earth. God gave hope to the hopeless, life to the dying, grace to the wretched sinner, peace to the troubled. He stooped to earth in love, that we might be raised with Him, dying that we might have life. He came in the form of a sinless, helpless infant, with the purpose of saving His people from their sins.
IMG_0192Isaiah 7:14 reads: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Immanuel. God with us. Wonder at that. Marvel at that. Rejoice, and give God the glory.

Merry Christmas!

Laura Elizabeth

Winter bouquets

IMG_5995.1lowrezEven after the flowers fade, in what is left there is so much variety of texture, so many shades of brown and tan and silver and gold, such strange symmetry and asymmetry, such a spectrum of design. Winter bouquets are the perfect way to showcase the subtle beauty of the season. Sarah and I headed this morning towards the mines where we were hiking yesterday, armed with scissors and sacks and our cameras, to go a-gathering.

IMG_6020.1lowrezIt didn’t take long for us to fill our sacks, and it took less time than that for us to be already running late to help with Christmas dinner. Nevertheless, we gathered plenty – Heads of bee balm, little blue stem, coneflower tops, dead spikes of hairy verbena, and other grasses. We stopped once or twice on the way back to cut some yellow rabbitbrush, which seems to grow more on the open hill sides and hill tops, than in ravines.

IMG_6013.1lowrezMason jars are perfect as vases, and heaven knows we have plenty of Mason jars all over the place! I thought about using some of the old blue jars, but I think the clear glass ones are less obtrusive, for this sort of bouquet. I filled the bottom of the larger jar with pieces of lichen and moss-covered bark. Adding a jute bow, they became festive centerpieces. Jute is like burlap – Rustic, serviceable, and delicately beautiful in its drabness.

IMG_6030.1lowrezIt is something of an exercise in simplicity.

And I like simplicity.

Laura Elizabeth

A Winter’s Eve

IMG_5838.1lowrezEven in the last minute Christmas bustle, baking, cleaning house, wrapping presents, doing laundry, the beautiful weather couldn’t be wasted. We finally got out the door around 3:30. The sun had dipped below the hills. Our Hole-in-the-Wall excursion became a Mountain Lion Cave excursion, since the former takes considerably longer than the latter, and we can drive the Jeep almost all the way to the ravine the cave is in.

IMG_5849.1lowrezWe have a trail going from the driveway all the way to the cave, but the last hill down into the ravine is about a 40 degree grade and, while possible in the Jeep, gets a little dicey. So we generally park at the top and walk the rest of the way down the trail. Today, though, Sarah and I decided to walk down through the mining pits, since we’d never gotten into the ravine that way before. It was a lovely little walk down the mine, over deadfall, through briars and waist-high dried grasses, in and out of cutaway places where water probably ran during the mining days.

IMG_5866.1lowrezClumps of woodsorrel and tufts of lush moss clung close to the earth, as green as springtime, glinting through pine needles and scrubby grasses, like emeralds in an antique brooch. Pale grey lichens crusted rocks, subtle and unremarkable, until you look closer.  The moss clinging to rocks, like a tiny carpet of ferns, and the lichen crusting rocks, like strange, oceanic life. What variety of textures and color in Creation!

IMG_5887.1lowrezEven in the winter, even when nearly everything has gone to sleep, dormant, and won’t wake until March or April or May, even with all the flowers dead, the petals faded and fallen, nothing but stems, sepals, dried leaves left, there is still a mysterious, ephemeral beauty. Flowers are common to life, something we are used to looking and wondering at. But what about what is left when the flower is gone? That is something we don’t generally take the time to marvel at. But those things that are left are the means of propagating next year’s flowers – In a sense, they are the beginning of the new flowers.

IMG_5845.1lowrezOn the way to the ravine, we stopped to get some pictures on a sun-bathed hillside. These silvery stars were fresh and bright in a bed a fallen pine needles and red earth, one of the only living plants still unbitten by the frost. As many flowers as I’ve photographed and identified, I can’t put my finger on this one – I have a few ideas, including Eriogonum pauciflorum, but I don’t think I’ll know until I check on it this spring. Tomorrow, or sometime soon, I’d like to go back to mark the area so I can be sure to identify the correct plant!

IMG_5889.1lowrezThe stems of dried grasses and flowers would make a lovely winter bouquet – We’ll have some time before our Christmas festivities begin tomorrow, so I’m hoping to get out to pick a bouquet. Dressed up with some jute and put in a Mason jar, it will make a rustic, festive centerpiece! I forgot to bring a sack on our walk, or I would have picked some things today.

IMG_5918.1lowrezThe moon was rising as we drove east towards home. Giant and golden, fading to silver as it got higher. I didn’t have a tripod with me, but as soon as we were home, I grabbed the tripod and Sarah and I headed out again. It will be a full moon tomorrow, a full moon on Christmas. This evening, it was fitting that we listened to the 1968 Apollo 8 Christmas message, a reading from the first chapter of the book of Genesis. What a wonderful world God created, and what a gift to live here.

Tomorrow is Christmas. I’d hoped for a moonlit hike on Christmas night, but we’re expecting snow. So Sarah and I are about to bundle up and head out for a stroll in the moonlight. The frost is thick and diamond bright in the light from the almost-full moon. A perfect night.

Laura Elizabeth