Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas, One and All

The shopping is done. The food has been eaten. The goodies all delivered.

The snow has fallen, and the night sky is now bright with stars. Somewhere in that night sky flies a jolly man -- a saint, the embodiment of generosity -- and his small team of reindeer and a sleigh full of dreams.

Good will descends upon the world like a gentle dusting of pure, white snow.

Ralphie has his Red Ryder, two-hundred shot, range model air rifle. Clark Griswold has his Christmas bonus. It snowed in Vermont. Ebenezer Scrooge has been redeemed, and I have an appointment, presently, in Bedford Falls, with the George Bailey Family.

One by one, exhausted by the anticipation, the children fade away -- for a few brief hours, at least.

The wassail is simmering. The leg lamp is lit. Bing Crosby sings quietly in the background.

In a manger; in the churches; in the cities and the countries; in the fields and the hills; from ocean to ocean, and peak to peak; in the warmest of homes and the darkest of streets, shines an Everlasting Light.

Merry Christmas to all of you.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

If I Cannot Bring You Comfort, then at least I bring You Hope

Sometimes in life, something comes along that just stops you in your tracks, and makes you step back, and take a long look at your life. It can be a victory or a tragedy, a triumph or a loss.

And then sometimes, it just comes out of nowhere.

This weekend, I was hired to take Santa Claus pictures, at my company's children's Christmas party. For four hours I sat in front of a wonderful Santa and Mrs. Claus, snapping pictures, as a line of children (some eager, some...not so much) filed past, to tell the Jolly Old Elf how good they've been this year, and to whisper into his ear their greatest hopes and desires.

And then Alicia tapped me on the shoulder.

Alicia was a sixty year old Mexican woman, and an employee of the hotel where our party was being held. She was one of the workers attending to our needs. She told me she had always wanted to get a picture with Santa, and she asked me how much I would charge to take a picture of her with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Not being one of our employees, she wouldn't have access to the photos that I was taking. I asked for an email address, and told her I would just send it to her -- no charge.

Alicia stood quietly to the side, as the rest of the children passed by.  And then it was her turn. She climbed up on the stage, and stood next to Santa Claus, pointing to his giant "Santa" belt buckle, and smiling big.

I snapped the picture.

And then things got profound...

She looked at Mr. and Mrs. Claus, and said "Now my dream has finally come true."

And then she began to cry.

And I haven't stopped thinking about that moment since.

The thing about hopes and dreams is that they're a bit different for each of us. Every child that spoke to Santa Claus that day, was full of hope, and each hope was a little different from the child who went before. The other thing about hopes and dreams is that we all have them. Hope is what pushes us forward. Hope changes us. Hope makes us better.

Our hopes and dreams are the things we treasure the most, and sometimes there's no understanding them, but that doesn't make them less real, or less important. Each of the kids, who sat on Santa Claus' lap that afternoon hoped for an abundant reward for a year of good behavior. My greatest hopes are for my family -- that they'll be happy, that they'll be successful, that they will love their life, as I have loved my own.

And Alicia hoped, for sixty years, to take a picture with Santa Claus.

I don't know why that dream went unfulfilled for so long, or why it mattered so much, but I know it did. I saw that in her eyes and her tears, and I was deeply touched to be a part of helping that hope become fulfilled.

Hope is powerful.

And now, twenty-four hours later, as I sit in the darkness of my home, lit only by the soft light of the Christmas tree, with quiet carols playing in the back ground, it occurs to me that Christmas is about a lot of things. It's about joy. It's about peace on earth. It's about new life and it's about redemption. But really, it's about hope for each of those things.

And it was hope -- the greatest hope of all -- that was born, in that stable, under that star in the desert sky, on that silent night, long ago.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Photostory Friday: The Light Which Pierces the Darkness

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It's one of my favorite moments of the Christmas Season: we turn off all of the other lights in the house, and light up the Christmas tree, for the first time. The house is bathed in reds and greens and golds. 

The lights of Christmas are soft and subtle. Candles and stars. They are different from other lights. They seem to illuminate only what is important. They are not exposing, they are revealing. Everything looks prettier, lit by Christmas lights. 

In the early morning hours of December 13, she dons the simple white robe and red sash. Upon her head is placed a crown of candles. She leads a procession of younger children through the darkened homes, bearing light and nourishment, to those within.

She is Santa Lucia. The Queen of Light. 

In Sweden, December 13 is St Lucia's Day. Legend says that Lucia was a Christian martyr of the fourth century. How this beautiful, Sicilian Saint (and in predominantly Lutheran Sweden too) came to be associated with the far, northern lands of Scandinavia, is something of a mystery. But there may be a clue in her name -- Lucia. It is derived from the Latin word Lux, which means Light. 

In the ancient Julian calendar, December 13 was the night of the winter solstice -- the end of the long journey into darkness. The return of the light. Today, in the those northern latitudes, darkness comes in the very early afternoon. 

Light is precious. 

My family is of Swedish decent, and we began keeping the tradition of Santa Lucia when Jordan, my oldest (and inheritor of all the Scandinavian genes) was very small. We modify it slightly. Traditionally, Lucia carries coffee and saffron buns, but we're not coffee drinkers, and have you seen the price of saffron?!? So, it's usually hot chocolate or wassail, and cinnamon rolls or cookies, at our house. 

We also like to tie it in to the larger celebration of Christmas, as well. After all, isn't that really what Christmas is all about:

The Light, which pierces the darkness. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Ave Maria

Behold, the Handmaid of the Lord

Mary. A very common name. 

Scholars tell us that in ancient Judea, one in three Jewish women was named Mary, or Miriam in Hebrew. They also tell us that she was young, likely very young. Jewish girls were often married by the age of fourteen. A common woman, with a most uncommon calling. 

I think about Mary a lot this time of year. Though she is a constant presence at Christmas time, our focus is often -- and understandably -- on the Savior. But, what of this most uncommon of ordinary women? In the two millenia since the birth of Jesus, Mary has become the object of much veneration. She is Ave Maria, the Blessed Virgin. She has been a saint and a strength to, literally, billions of people. And rightly so, she was the vessel, the most worthy of women, chosen to play the most important role, in the most important birth in history. What a woman she must have been! But, I think, sometimes, in the adulation of Mary, we lose sight of her humanity. And Mary's humanity is, after all, her most important contribution to the life and mission of Jesus Christ.

What was it like to be pregnant with a Holy Child? What was it like to give birth to the Son of God? What was it like to be the mother, and to raise -- for she did more than simply give birth to -- the Savior of all mankind? Only one woman can answer these questions, but I'll tell you what I think...

I think carrying the Child of God in her womb was hard. I think her back hurt, from carrying the weight of a child inside of her. I believe she was anxious and nervous, this being her first pregnancy. I think Mary was probably ready to have the baby, long before the baby was ready to be born. Mary was the mother of at least seven children, and I believe that the birth of Jesus was as painful, and difficult, perhaps more so, as the births of her other children. She was highly blessed of the Lord, but that never means the path will be easy. 

I wonder how aware she was of the shepherds' visit that first night. Was she there to receive them and hear their miraculous story, or was she so overwhelmed and exhausted, that some of those things were a little blurry? I wonder if she ever saw the star, or if being up, often, during the night, to feed her new baby, made those hours of sleep precious, and left little time for stargazing? I think she checked on Jesus constantly as he slept. I believe that the baby Jesus cried. I think he cried when he was hungry. He cried when he was wet, he cried when he was hurting. I think, sometimes, like all other newborn babies, he cried for no apparent reason at all. And, through it all, Mary did what all mothers do -- she fed him, she changed him, she burped and bathed him, she cuddled and sang to him. As Jesus grew older, it was his mother who nurtured him, who cared for his bumps and bruises, who wiped away his tears and kissed his skinned knees. 

Mary knew what few others knew then, that this was the Only Begotten Son of God. His father was divine, but half of his inheritance was mortality. He could suffer. He could die. And, to fulfill his destiny, one day he would. But, from his mother, Jesus would learn of strength and compassion, and of unconditional love. Those are the gifts of a mother. 

When she was told by the angel, of the honor that was to be hers, Mary's response was humble and unequivocal -- "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word."


I believe, because of the responsibility that she was asked to bear, that Mary must have had some foreknowledge of the mission of her son. But, I wonder if she imagined that she would live to see Jesus heal the sick and raise the dead? Did she know that he would be hated, that he would be betrayed by his friends, that all manner of indignity would be heaped upon him? Did she know that she would live to see the fulfillment of the Atonement? Could she have imagined, as she held her tiny boy that first night in Bethlehem, that three decades from then, she would watch the life spill from her son, upon a cross; and then see him reborn, as a glorified and perfect being? 

God, our Father, gave his Only Begotten Son, as a sacrifice, so that each of us would have the opportunity to return to His presence. Jesus Christ suffered greater than anyone in history, so that through his blood, and by his atonement, we might all be cleansed of sin. 

But, I hope that we never forget that Mary, the mother of the Son of God,  also gave her firstborn son, for the blessing of all mankind.