How Was It?

For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.    I Corinthians 2:2

Good morning!

Here we are after two days of Christmas celebrations and gift-giving.  There has been joyous singing, candles, lights of every color and hue, family, friends, and gifts.  How was it for you?

We celebrated quietly, peacefully.  There were no decorations to put up and there are now none to take down.  There is no post-apocalyptic landscape of torn wrapping paper and gifts that didn’t quite satisfy.  With no family around for hundreds of miles, we texted and phoned our Merry Christmas’s throughout the day.

Last night was a dinner at our neighbor’s house; salad, pastas, pies, and, I’ll admit a bit sheepishly, a couple bottles of wine.  I don’t normally drink alcohol.  It makes me sleepy.  But it tasted good and we only had to journey across the lawn back to our own house after.  I didn’t even walk in the street.

The conversation was wide-ranging.  There was laughter, solemn nods, and then hugs to end the night.

This morning I am not hung over, I assure you!  I’m putting this out late because the bankies were oh, so deliciously warm!

Today and the nearby tomorrows will be quiet before heading back to work.  There are no decorations to put away and no wrapping paper to clean up.  We have left the roller-coaster of traditional Christmases we rode for decades and opted for…what?  The Lazy River ride, floating along and savoring every person we “meet” with a phone call, a text, a smile, and even a raised glass.

Was your Christmas another costly high-energy orgy of travel, gifts, and food?

How was it?

If that’s your thing, get ‘er done next year too!  My question is really about whether the holiday wore you out or whether you…wore the holiday, whether you put it on for what it is; the Christ-child plopping quietly into the world and ultimately being all we need.

If your Christmas was an extravaganza because it’s expected and it wore you out, maybe now is the time to take stock.  Maybe now is the time to write down – and I really mean this – write down how you want to celebrate next year.  What would you want to do differently?  What would make it better?

Write it down while it’s clear in your mind!

What would it take for your next Christmas to be about Jesus without all the worldly traditions?

Again, if the big splash is your thing, I salute you!  But, if your drummer beats more slowly and quietly, listen to him next year.  If your Savior was lost amongst lights, wrapping paper, and pressure, what needs to be rearranged or even removed to do it better next year?

Merry Christmas, everyone!  And thank you for spending time with me here this past year.  I’m glad I’ve been able to give you some food for thought.  The number of visitors and articles read jumped a lot over last year.  It’s gratifying that the writing has not been in vain.

Again – Thank you!

Joseph

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. 19 Then Joseph her husband, being [f]a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. 20 But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is [g]conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name [h]Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”…24 Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, 25 and [i]did not know her till she had brought forth her[j] firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus.    Matthew 1:18-21, 24-25

When I wrote my novel, The Substance Hoped For, I felt for poor Joseph.  I wanted to give him more attention than the Gospel writers did.

Poor Joseph just doesn’t get much press either in the Bible or today.  Sure, there’s the obligatory figure in the manger scenes we put up.  And that’s the word that seems to sum up Joseph, doesn’t it?

Obligatory.

How would you like that as your life’s summary on your tombstone: obligatory?  That’s worse than “He was a great employee.”

By the time we get to the end of the Gospel story, Mary is still front and center.  Joseph?  Not one mention.  Did he even get a tombstone?

I have to wonder how Joseph dealt with being obligatory.  Was he ever resentful?  Did he ever reconcile with his role in saving the world?

I think he did.  And I think it might have gone something like this…

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It had been a long, exhausting vigil.  Joseph’s initial underestimation of the birthing process was replaced by fatigue, renewed respect for every woman who had ever gone through it, particular love and admiration for Mary…and very sore hands.  If this had been the end of the day at his carpenter shop, he’d just collapse and expect Mary to feed him.  This time Mary was the one who had collapsed and needed watching.  His needs must wait for those of her…and his son!

The strength to move past exhaustion and do more exists in us all.  We only need the key to open the door to those reserves, to decide to be and do more than we have been and done.  The key to Joseph’s reserves lay there in the straw.  Two human beings who had just been through one of life’s two most difficult moments lay there consoling each other with their presence.  The sight of them dozing together, wrapped in clothes and straw filled him with a peaceful strength that, while not able to move mountains, could keep him alert to their needs, to keep them comfortable and safe, to think of them ahead of himself.

His son!  The greatest accomplishment of every man’s life swelled him with pride.  What to call him?  He then remembered what Mary had told him about the angel’s visit, the nature of this child, and what his name was to be.  This son was not his and not his to name.  He felt a moment of hollowness.

Not his son!  He wrestled with that thought, and the frustration of it angered him.  His wife had had a son who was not his!  Whose son?  The Son of God.  Well, he was sure that God must be very happy right now.  Good for You, God.  Cute Kid You’ve got there.  Bring Him over any time.  Always glad to see You and the Family.

But he couldn’t stay angry.  The baby was beautiful.  He couldn’t have imagined a lovelier child.  Why was that?  Because this was the Son of God?  No.  He had to admit that this particular little Boy wasn’t all that distinguishable from any other baby.  He didn’t look especially holy or anything.  What was it that stirred his soul?

It was fatherhood.  That lucky little Kid would just have to get used to the idea that He had two fathers.  One is up there, and the other is this carpenter down here.  Ok, He wasn’t the issue of Joseph’s own body, but Joseph had helped bring Him into this world, cradling Him as He arrived.  He would feed Him, provide for Him, teach Him, and do all those things that earthly fathers did for their sons.  He would teach him his trade, apprentice Him into the family business and eventually hand over the reins to Him.  He would be a good father to this Boy, one that…Yes!  That was the answer!  He would be the father that God Himself had intended for His Son!

He then understood and accepted his role in God’s plan.  Until this moment he had felt like an outsider, gamely struggling to put his doubts and fears away somewhere.  He had not been able to outrun them, and they continually returned to plague him.  Now that he had opened his mind to God, those fears were completely obliterated by God.  His mind was swept clean of the debris of doubt.  He saw with intoxicating clarity that he would be the father to the Son of God, the father chosen by God from all of humanity to care for this special One.

The relief was so great that Joseph could scarcely keep from laughing out loud.  As he drank in the sight of his new family in the straw, he imagined that someday this Boy would tell him what all sons tell their fathers at some point in time. He fully intended to literally live up to that often subjective appellation; Best Dad on Earth.

The Shepherds

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.”    Luke 2:15

My goal in writing my novel, The Substance Hoped For was to use my actor’s imagination to flesh out details about Christmas not contained in the Bible.  The Bible tells us what happened, but it doesn’t always give the sense of what it was like, the finer details of people’s lives.

Toward that end, I offer you my interpretation of The Shepherds from my novel, The Substance Hoped For.

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The overflow of humanity from the census huddled in doorways and against walls on the streets of Bethlehem.  All were still, if not asleep, as they sealed themselves as best they could against the chill of the night.  As the shepherds whirled through the streets and alleys like leaves blown in the eddies of an autumn wind, eyes peered over blanket edges.  Some heads raised slightly at the sound of what seemed to be drunken shouts about the Messiah, but they quickly pulled back into their cocoons to conserve the thin layer of warmth between their skin and their covers.  No one thought to take these somewhat crazed hillsmen as anything more than another peculiarity that came with this ridiculous, irritating census.  If only all interruptions and irritations would move along so quickly!

They were almost to the far side of town when one of them delivered a piercing whistle that stopped the rest in their tracks.  They all looked toward him in expectation.  He put a finger to his lips for quiet and motioned them to come near.  When they were all gathered at the entrance to this particular stable, they peered inside as though frightened to enter.  Someone seemed to speak to them from inside.  One by one they then gingerly entered the stable, almost as peasants would enter a castle.

Inside was a man standing next to a girl who was seated.  She was holding a small bundle, which had to be a child.  The shepherds were gathered respectfully around them.  Some of them were telling the man about what had happened to them on the hillside outside of town.  He listened with a detached expression that left Tom wondering whether he believed them or not.  The girl listened calmly, smiling at them as their story unfolded.  The other shepherds were gingerly peering into the bundle she cradled.  One or two were brave enough to stretch a finger into the swaddling clothes to render a gentle caress.

The girl seemed amused that such rough men were behaving so meekly.  Suddenly, she decided to let them hold her Child.  She offered Him to the nearest man, who tried to retreat from this fearsome honor.  That a man can fight wolves and bears and make his way in the wilderness alone and yet be cowed by a mewling infant has been a known fact through the ages, much to the delight of mothers around the world.  Enjoying the only entertainment she’d had since before leaving home to come to Bethlehem for the census, she prevailed upon him to hold her Son.  Thankful that they hadn’t been singled out by the mother, his alleged friends provided no escape.  The mountain man accepted the Child into his arms with a look of intense concentration, lest he break something.  Gradually he got the hang of it and began to smile a bit as the others reached in to touch this little Miracle.

Having been cornered himself, he decided it was now time for someone else to pass through the fire of holding a baby, but none of his compatriots would take Him.  Inside, he was just as glad.  This was really more fun than he had thought it would be.  And this made him out to be the bravest in the group.  He’d have bragging rights for days, berating his mates for their cowardice…something they hadn’t thought of when they cornered him into this.

The girl smiled.  She seemed barely more than a child herself.  Except when she smiled.  It was a wise smile that had seen much in a short time and therefore knew how to smile well.

Here it was; a tableau from every mantelpiece, every store display in the world.  It was so foreign, breaking every mold that had ever tried to capture and sell this moment.  It was so right, holding the joy and the innocence that a child can bring to people.  It was so…Christmas.

Through the accidents of history come the customs of holidays.  Some parallels between 20th Century observances and original events are based upon centuries of repeated lore.  Others are the result of mere happenstance, not thought of by modern day revelers.

One element of Christmas which the original event shares with all of its subsequent remembrances and no one ever knew about; having company that is welcome but keeps you up past your bedtime.  The shepherds were a surprise at the stable.  Their infectious joy was a boon to the lonely family.  Mary and Joseph had no one there to celebrate the birth of their Son with them.

Oh, they were more than happy about the birth of Jesus.  But there was a sense of disappointment all the same.  There was the exultation of the moment but no roar of the crowd.  Then these wild hill men came to rejoice with them at this most opportune moment.  They were all as a family for this night.

Many of the things the shepherds had to tell Mary and Joseph caused the new parents a certain amount of discomfort.  Just when life was starting to look normal again, these guys came along to remind them that this special Baby is God’s Messiah.  Ultimately, that contained comfort.  It confirmed their dreams, which had made them doubt their sanity at times.

So, in keeping with the Christmas tradition of centuries to come, the shepherds stayed late, keeping the Holy Family from their sleep.  Oh, well.  Joseph and Mary had taken a nap earlier.  And how often do they ever entertain, really?  They didn’t know a lot of people in town and might as well take advantage of this impromptu Welcome Wagon.  They’d just sleep in a bit tomorrow.  It’s not like they did this every night.

Eventually the shepherds left.  It had been fun, but in the end Mary and Joseph were glad to see them go.  They could now act out the final stage of this particular holiday tradition.  The vacuum of the departure of one’s guests leaves the hosts tired and without direction for a while.  Fortunately, the mundane tasks of living press upon us at these times.  We clear the dishes, put back the chairs, put the cow back in her stall, and fluff up the straw bed.  Mary and Joseph moved about in that post-company daze that we all know so well.

The only member of the family who seemed unaffected was Jesus.  Oddly enough, He was pretty calm despite all of the excitement of being born and handed around by strange people, late company, and all the rest.  Usually kids get cranky with all of the disruption of a holiday, but this was one Kid who managed to take it all in stride.  His parents couldn’t have been more proud of Him.

The Three Wise Men

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, [a]wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”    Matthew 2:1-2

Christmas is six days away!  What better way to start off this last week than with the Three Wise Men?  After all, they heard about Jesus’ impending arrival before anyone.

That’s why I chose them to open my novel, The Substance Hoped For.  I hope you like my take on them:

They were wealthy men.  And wise.  These were qualities which they knew set them above other men.  However, they did not allow that knowledge to warp them with pride.  They were too wise for that.  Rather, they knew that these qualities begged their service to mankind.  They used their wisdom as entrepreneurs, bringing trade and prosperity to their countrymen.   They used their wisdom to learn more of the world and its workings.  They brought organization and planning to their country, and it grew.  In this way they worked with the world as it is seen by men.

But they also knew that there was more.  There was an unseen world which overlaid the one they saw and understood.  It was a world of gods and spirits.  These were what really moved humanity along its course with men seldom realizing it.  But they knew.  It was more than a suspicion.  They knew.  Their conclusion was supported by the writings of the ancients, those who lived when the world was new.  Those who walked with the powers now unseen.  Worldly fortunes grew, but those paled to the growing thirst to know what the ancients knew.  So they studied.

They focused on history and folklore.  They were acquainted with a great many religions as well as myths of gods and the beginnings of the world.  They hoped there was a god.  Otherwise, the knowledge they held, the riches they enjoyed, the civilization they called home was all without meaning.  There would only be the rule of might.  There would be no right or wrong, only opinions.  However, with all of their study and experience, they were sure that “right” and “wrong” were absolutes.  They were sure that there had to be a god.  One, at least.

There was more.  They had the distinct feeling that the histories they studied were not complete.  They felt sure that these old, dry writings pointed to further events.  These events had yet to occur, but their eventual fulfillment seemed as sure as tomorrow’s sunrise.  Their study focused more than ever on where these incomplete writings pointed and how those times would be marked.  They had felt themselves poised on the brink of something, at the lip of a chasm in time that would send mankind hurtling into…what?  They could not tell.  Not precisely.

The feelings they held were of anticipation as well as foreboding.  Humankind and change did not always mix well, even when the change was for the better.  That was why they felt their hearts stop this night.  The breath was stolen from their lungs as they gazed into the sky.  They felt as though time had stopped, and, indeed, they almost wished it would.  If time would not stand still for them this night, they knew they would either find themselves destroyed with disappointment or swept into a maelstrom of events that would turn the flow of human history into a violent backwash of time as humanity searched for its new direction.

Since the dawn of time, men had looked to the stars to determine what the fates held in store for them.  Some had erroneously viewed falling space debris as a sign of either greatness or calamity.  Others, like these men, had learned to read the motions of the stars and could determine the times of the years.  But very few, if any, had their knowledge of both the skies and the stories of men and gods.  Although the brightly shining body that they beheld this night was like none they had ever seen before, they knew what it meant.  They knew what they had to do.

In the centuries that would follow them, a great many scientists would guess as to just what was seen tonight.  These scientists would put forth theories of suns gone nova or planetary alignments.  These scientists in the future would be individuals of high learning and resources that would be far beyond the grasp of these three men.  These scientists, not yet born, with all of their learning and tools, may well someday provide an accurate description of how what these three men now saw had come to pass.  But they would never truly understand it.  They would never be Wise Men.

Black Friday: Good News/Bad News

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place     and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,     in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,     to the glory of God the Father.    Philippians 2:9-11

For the first time in years there were no headlines I saw about Christmas shoppers mugging and killing each other, so that’s good news.  But it comes at the price of COVID, which is bad news.  The stores have seen decreased traffic, and many stores have been largely empty.  That might have been good news until I learned that Christmas buying has shifted heavily to online buying.  The estimate is for 58% of Christmas shopping to be online, and the projected spending is up a 2% or more over last year; that’s a lot of dollars!  Christmas greed and materialism continue unabated.

How much does the good news cancel out the bad?  Just by the numbers, COVID and the shutdowns have killed far more people than Black Friday altercations; I guess I’d rather have the usual headlines.  Christmas has still been high jacked from Jesus’ birth by worldly concerns and men’s traditions.

The best thing you and I can do is to not lose our own focus this holiday.  Let’s remember it all started with Jesus.  In more ways than one.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.    John 1:1-3

Yes, God created the universe, but He did it through His Son, the Word destined to be incarnate.  He was born and given the name “Jesus” at which every knee would bow.

It will end with Jesus too.

What are we to do?  Bow the knee and remember what everything is all about, and I don’t just mean Christmas.  Remember every day is about Him, what He did for us, and our grateful, loving response.

I’ve said it here before, and I’ll say it again now; I haven’t decorated for Christmas for over ten years.  It started as necessity and has become a blessing.  There is no unrealistic expectation for December 25.  There are no frantic preparations.  There is no unnecessary spending.

Starting the afternoon of December 25 and onward there is no let down, no gloom over the prospect of having to pack it all up, take down the lights, and face the dreariness of winter without the color and tinsel.

OK.  I admit it; I send out Christmas cards.  Not even two dozen.  It’s nice to stay in touch, even if it is only once a year with some folks.

Without the artificiality it is all so much more doable.  Without all the noise the clarity of just Who Jesus is and what He has done and continues to do is untarnished.  Letting go of the man-made traditions makes room for God and His Word made flesh.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.    John 1:14

Have you already decorated?  Fine.  Have you finished?  No?  Then let it go.  Have you not bought presents yet?  Consider not…or at least keep it very modest.

It’ll feel weird to let go of some of these things, but I am certain you will realize how much nicer it is to not have the let down as you survey the ripped wrapping paper.

Keeping it slow and simple is the best way to have a truly Merry Christmas!

Christmas Delusion

Joseph Mary and JesusFor the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.   Matthew 18:11

I recently came across the following quote:

“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childhood days, recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, and transport the traveler back to his own fireside and quiet home!” – Charles Dickens

 

“How true!” I thought. Then, as quickly, I realized the problem with this quotation. It celebrates and even longs for delusion! Oh, I know Dickens meant well. I also recognize the desire for that delusion. I yearn for the innocence of childhood and a problem-free life of trees, lights, music, and gifts. How many times I have echoed the laments of not having the Christmas feeling this year! How strongly I desire to wrap myself in childhood once again!

A3GR26I am not the first to observe that the celebration has replaced the event. We hear it often enough. Therein lies the necessity to repeat the observation, even the warning alarm! Like the Children of Israel in the wilderness, we fall away, return, and fall away again. We praise the celebration, we praise the Christ, and we praise the celebration again!

Let’s try starting a new remembrance every day. Let’s even try our hand at writing it out in our own words, our own vision of how it went.

flight-into-egypt

Here we go again…

Mary and Joseph have impossible events thrust upon them, which they endure…yes, endure with faith and grace! A pre-married pregnancy, and a hugely pregnant Mary bobbing along on a donkey when she should have been resting. She had to give birth amid farm animals in their shelter and placed her Baby in a feeding trough. Herod went murderously crazy, and they all had to bingo to Egypt to save Jesus from that evil plot.

That was just the beginning of Jesus coming to save that which was lost!

So, try your hand at writing an account of the entire Christmas story from John the Baptist’s birth foretold, to Jesus’, to His dedication at the temple, to the Wise Men and their flight to Egypt. The Biblical account doesn’t have all the fine details that a modern novel would include. Maybe writing it out for yourself with those details one can reasonably imagine can help you focus on and appreciate the event better. All year long!

Paul wrote to the Philippians to “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”

With thanksgiving! Make it your habit to pray every day! Remember to make thanksgiving a part of that daily prayer. Make Jesus’ birth and death a part of your daily thanksgiving! Let that thanksgiving be fueled by a better understanding of the Christmas story by way of the exercise of writing out exactly how you might see it all happening in real life.

Yeah, I still listen to my favorite Christmas music. I still like seeing the lights. Nothing is wrong with a healthy celebration and remembrance. Just remember to keep it in its proper place – behind the manger! Jesus-in-manger

Christmas – Done…?

Christmas ShepherdsSo it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. 17 Now when they had seen Him, they made [f]widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child.   Luke 2:15-17

The shepherds instituted the Christmas custom of company for the holiday. They came. They had a great visit, and then they took off, leaving Joseph, Mary and Jesus to clean up. Well, Joseph and Mary. They were a great bunch of guys and arguably Jesus’ first heralds, predating even John the Baptist.

But, yeah…the post celebration let-down hit. It had been a long trip with poor, pregnant Mary riding on a donkey. Then she gives birth in a stable. There was no roar of the crowd; just bleating sheep and mooing cows. Then they had to play host to those hills-men.

You probably feel something like that now. The food coma beckons as you look around at the carnage of torn wrapping paper and all those decorations that must come down. Maybe not right away. Maybe you’ll do that during a bowl game on January 1.

Of course, Christmas was not done for the Holy Family, was it? They still had to make a wild dash for Egypt soon to save Jesus’ life. Yes, Christmas went on for them, and not always pleasantly.

Our celebration is done, but Christmas still goes on, doesn’t it? It isn’t the tree, the lights, the presents, or food. It’s living the life that honors Jesus’ sacrifice by looking for the good works God has prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). It’s serving and even sacrificing when practicing our faith costs us in the here and now.

As Christmas 2019 winds down, there’s one more gift to be delivered in 2020. It’s you! You’ve been wrapped in forgiveness and delivered under a tree to be unwrapped as many times as needs be in the coming year with good works, kind words, and whatever else needs to be done as a grateful child of God!

Merry Christmas…all year long!

Christmas – Shepherds

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.   Luke 2:8

Shepherds and AngelsThe Shepherds. They don’t get much attention, but they were arguably Jesus’ first disciples. After visiting Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, they were the first humans to proclaim the arrival of Messiah.

That had to be one mind-blowing night! First, there was one angel appearing out of nowhere telling them God’s Promise had arrived. Then there were more angels than one could count pinwheeling around the sky and making music no human ear had ever heard.

What might it have been like? I took a swing at it in my Christian fiction novel, The Substance Hoped For.

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And there were, in a nearby field, shepherds, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, they were beat to hell. It had been one long day, and if there had been a list of things that could really ruin a shepherd’s day, they’d have checked off the last item by mid-afternoon. They were tired. They were hungry. All they wanted to do was sleep. In fact, they went to the extra precaution of having two stand watch instead of one just so they could keep each other awake. If there had been no sign of predators during the day, they might have considered foregoing a night watch. Predators had, in fact, been an unusually large problem for days, which was why they were so exhausted and would continue to lose sleep.

The two unlucky winners of tonight’s lottery for first watch huddled against the cold of the night. The flocks were finally settling down, and the night wrapped itself around them. The stars dropped their dust of light across the landscape and transformed it into a land of slumber. The star dust confounded the eyes into seeing images that were soft and of dimensions not real. The insects and other creatures of this kingdom issued their complaint to no one in particular, as they and the very fabric of this starry world seduced the weary faculties of man.

The watchers found themselves watching each other more than anything else. They began a game of tossing small clods of dirt at each other if one suspected the other of nodding off. It became a rivalry of trying to find more and more furtive ways of disguising their tosses while increasing their accuracy.

Their attention thus diverted, the shock of finally noticing a stranger in their midst was profound. Like children caught throwing spitballs, they scrambled to their feet, grabbing their shepherd’s weapons and shouting an alarm to their fellows.

The stranger made no move to either flee or defend himself. He simply stood there, waiting. Being of noticeable size, he wasn’t someone that the shepherds were willing to come to blows with, particularly since he didn’t seem to represent any overt threat to them…not counting sheer shock value, of course. His face seemed friendly enough. Indeed, when he seemed sure that he had their undivided attention a smile of great warmth and happiness lit his face.

He flung his arms upward, and under them seemed to unfold wings. A bright light enveloped their whole camp as he rose into the air. He began speaking to them in a voice which commanded the night. It rung in their ears and penetrated their minds as though his words were their own thoughts.

“Do not fear. Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall come to all people; for to you is born this night in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. And this will be a sign to you; you will find the Baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

His words stunned his listeners. The shepherds were awestruck, because they were witnessing a heavenly messenger who was telling them that a promise ragged with time was being sewn up and delivered in their presence.

They knew the history of their race and were familiar with the promise of the Messiah. Now angels from God had danced with them and told them where they could see the mythical Messiah now come to them in the flesh.

It didn’t take much discussion to decide that the sheep would somehow be in God’s keeping. If He had told them to go see the Chosen One, surely, He would not let any harm come to them or their livelihood. With utter abandon they ran, tripped, rolled, bounced, and otherwise descended the hillside, heading for the faint fires that marked Bethlehem.

The overflow of humanity from the census huddled in doorways and against walls on the streets of Bethlehem. All were still, if not asleep, as they sealed themselves as best they could against the chill of the night. As the shepherds whirled through the streets and alleys like leaves blown in the eddies of an autumn wind, eyes peered over blanket edges. Some heads raised slightly at the sound of what seemed to be drunken shouts about the Messiah, but they quickly pulled back into their cocoons to conserve the thin layer of warmth between their skin and their covers. No one thought to take these somewhat crazed hillsmen as anything more than another peculiarity that came with this ridiculous, irritating census. If only all interruptions and irritations would move along so quickly!

They were almost to the far side of town when one of them delivered a piercing whistle that stopped the rest in their tracks. They all looked toward him in expectation. He put a finger to his lips for quiet and motioned them to come near.

When they were all gathered at the entrance to this particular stable, they peered inside as though frightened to enter. Someone seemed to speak to them from inside. One by one they then gingerly entered the stable, almost as peasants would enter a castle.

Inside was a man standing next to a girl who was seated. She was holding a small bundle, which had to be a child. The shepherds were gathered respectfully around them. Some of them were telling the man about what had happened to them on the hillside outside of town. He listened with a detached expression. The girl listened calmly, smiling at them as their story unfolded. The other shepherds were gingerly peering into the bundle she cradled. One or two were brave enough to stretch a finger into the swaddling clothes to render a gentle caress.

Shepherds and JesusThe girl seemed amused that such rough men were behaving so meekly. Suddenly, she decided to let them hold her Child. She offered Him to the nearest man, who tried to retreat from this fearsome honor. That a man can fight wolves and bears and make his way in the wilderness alone and yet be cowed by a mewling infant has been a known fact through the ages, much to the delight of mothers around the world. Enjoying the only entertainment she’d had since before leaving home to come to Bethlehem for the census, she prevailed upon him to hold her Son. Thankful that they hadn’t been singled out by the mother, his alleged friends provided no escape. The mountain man accepted the Child into his arms with a look of intense concentration, lest he break something. Gradually he got the hang of it and began to smile a bit as the others reached in to touch this little Miracle.

Having been cornered himself, he decided it was now time for someone else to pass through the fire of holding a baby, but none of his compatriots would take Him. Inside, he was just as glad. This was really more fun than he had thought it would be. And this made him out to be the bravest in the group. He’d have bragging rights for days, berating his mates for their cowardice…something they hadn’t thought of when they cornered him into this.

Christmas – The Prophecy

King Herod

Show me the Baby!

And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”   Matthew 2:4-6 NKJV

How did this actually play out? Did the priests have to search, or did they know as a matter of course? In my Christian fiction novel, The Substance Hoped For, I took a guess that this was not information at the top of anyone’s head. I created the character of Nicodemas, an accomplished priest in the Temple, who would be the one to uncover the answer to where the Messiah would be born. He would also hear another prophecy that foreshadowed an imminent slaughter, but he would not understand that until it was too late.

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Nicodemas took a deep breath and began to relax his mind, to let go of the waiting and start exploring the possibility of His arrival to see what it felt like. Like a great ship, the bow of his mind slowly began to turn and behold a new view of the world. His heart began to race, and excitement pulled at him. Would it be possible that he might even meet the Messiah Himself? What would His arrival mean for Israel? For the world? How would things change? A small pang passed through his gut at the thought of change. If the Messiah was what he thought He was, the priesthood would have to undergo radical change. Would they even be needed? But there would be time for that later. Right now he felt himself pulled along in the whirlwind of possibilities.

And prophecies. Myriad passages of the sacred scriptures crowded his inner senses, each clamoring that they held the answers he sought. Like a parent trying to discern the voice of her own child amongst many, Nicodemas tested each voice from the past; Daniel, Solomon, David, Isaiah, and more. Beautiful psalms of praise and scathing prophecies of destruction careened inside his head. He caught his breath as veils of ignorance were lifted from his understanding of scripture. With the Christ possibly at his threshold, writings that had held limited meaning for him took on new life as he recognized their true Messianic nature. He began to understand more fully than he ever had. Still, none held the key that he sought.

Ancient-Bethlehem1

Ancient Bethlehem – not big!

One of the voices caught his attention. He almost missed it, like a whispered nothing not quite masked by a breeze. Something about Bethlehem. It happened so fast that Nicodemas had trouble calling it back and mentally replaying it. “But you, O Bethlehem…” something, something, something. What was it?!? Who was it? He tried to chase it down, and it scampered away from him like a cat that wanted to be petted, but only on its own terms.

Something else popped up, demanding attention. “A voice was heard in Ramah…” Bethlehem? Ramah? What were the scriptures trying to tell him? Where were they leading him? He wanted to kick the latter out of the way. He felt that the Bethlehem reference was what he really wanted…and what really wanted him. Wanted him? Yes! It was teasing him on, daring him to literally chase it through fold after fold in his brain. The more he pursued it, the more other the voices called to him, drowning out Bethlehem.

He stopped. Ignoring Bethlehem for the moment, he set about quieting the other voices, allowing them to enter and pass through his attention until only one small voice became clear. It unfolded in his mind and spoke with the dusty voice of history, “But you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler, Who will shepherd My people, Israel.”

With that, everything switched off. His heart pounding in his chest reminded him of the physical world he seemed to have left. His eyes popped open wide, because he knew! He knew where the Messiah is. He even knew who it was that had written that prophecy centuries ago! How fitting that one of the smaller prophets should foretell His arrival in one of the smaller villages of Israel!

Micah was a prophet during the time of Isaiah and was Isaiah’s counterpoint, a ground-level messenger aimed at the individual and how that person stood with the Almighty, one on one. They echoed each other, though, in the basic thrust of their words. The transgressions of the people, whether individually or as a nation, invited judgement and doom. Repentance and reconciliation were the antidote to the poison of sin.

They also agreed that the Messiah was definitely coming from David’s line.

Of course! He was coming from David’s line! Bethlehem was known as the City of David.

Nicodemas could only shake his head in embarrassed wonder as understanding dawned upon him. It was all there. All he or anyone else had needed to do was look at it. But he knew! He knew the answer before the rest of the priesthood, and it felt good to know something no one else knew!

Christmas Step Dad

Joseph Mary and Jesus…behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.  And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”   Matthew 1:20-21

Mary and Jesus are the ones who get all the “press” in the Gospel accounts of His birth. Joseph doesn’t get much attention. It must have been hard for him to play second fiddle in the whole series of events. He was the husband who was required. He provided the lineage, the transportation to Bethlehem, and an income. That’s at least how it looks on the surface.

Substance CoverHe had accepted the news that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. He accepted his role in what would otherwise be an intolerable situation. He was a great guy, and I’m certain he made the best of it. I made some guesses on how he might have responded to these challenges in my novel, The Substance Hoped For.

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Joseph had never before witnessed a birth. All he really knew about it was that it hurt a lot, unpleasant things could happen, and sometimes women died in the process.

Mary gasped, trying to save every ounce of strength for the next contraction. “Just hold my hand! Please!”

Hold her hand? Sure! He could do that. If a little hand-holding was all he could do for her right now, then hand-holding it would be. Simple enough!

These thoughts, of course, only lasted until the next contraction. At that time Mary would bear down with more than her powerful abdominal muscles. Other muscle groups fired into action in what might be called a sympathy contraction. Like the hands, for instance.

Eventually, the Baby was born. A boy. A SON! What to call him? Joseph then remembered what Mary had told him about the angel’s visit, the nature of this child, and what His name was to be. This son was not his and not his to name.

Not his son! The frustration of it angered him. His wife had had a son who was not his! Whose son? The Son of God. Well, he was sure that God must be very happy right now. Good for You, God. Cute Kid You’ve got there. Bring Him over any time. Always glad to see You and the Family.

But he couldn’t stay angry. The baby was beautiful. He couldn’t have imagined a lovelier child. Why was that?

It was fatherhood. That lucky little Kid would just have to get used to the idea that He had two fathers. One is up there, and the other is this carpenter down here. Ok, He wasn’t the issue of Joseph’s own body, but Joseph had helped bring Him into this world, cradling Him as He arrived. He would provide for Him and do all those things that earthly fathers did for their sons. He would be a good father to this Boy, one that…Yes! He would be the father that God Himself had intended for His Son!

The relief was so great that Joseph could scarcely keep from laughing out loud. As he drank in the sight of his new family in the straw, he imagined that someday this Boy would tell him what all sons tell their fathers at some point in time. He fully intended to literally live up to that often subjective appellation; Best Dad on Earth.

Best Dad on Earth