It's that time of year again - when the world falls in love, chestnuts are roasting on the open fire (maybe), the stockings are hung by the chimney with care (always), the halls are decked, and a spirit of warmth and good cheer descends upon the world with the new snow. People are hurrying about, giving and getting, baking and taking, singing and seeing and greeting... It's a wonderful time of year.
I love the traditions of Christmas as much as anyone. I look forward with great anticipation to the cookies we bake, the eggnog and Christmas morning wassail we sip from holiday mugs, the carols we sing and the stories we read in the evenings, the stockings and decorations hung about the house, and the resplendent Christmas tree. But there is one part of Christmas that is the more special than any other to me, and the most sacred part of my year.
It begins with the olive wood nativity that sits in the alcove in the front entry. My mother brought it back from her studies in the Holy Land over twenty years ago. It has changed locations several times, from window sills to hall tables, and the number of children who have handled the pieces has taken a toll. The shepherds and Joseph lost their staffs a while back (later having them replaced with anything from uncooked spaghetti to chop sticks) and the baby had to have a hand glued back into place once. Aside from those few alterations, the scene remains the same as it did when I was a child, carefully unwrapping each piece from its tissue paper and placing it in the stable. Humble Joseph, leaning on his staff, keeping watch over the manger... beatuiful Mary, her hands pressed gently over her heart, smiling down at her child... a shepherd boy with a cap on his head, accompanied by three wooley sheep... three wise men, lavishly robed and crowned, bearing ornamented boxes in their hands... And there, in the midst of it all, a tiny curly-haired infant lying in a straw-filled manger, wrapped in swadling clothes, his hands outstretched to all who look upon him. I remember the reverence with which I would hold the baby Jesus every year. I didn't understand everything about Jesus then, but I knew enough - I knew that this baby was something more special than any other doll or figurine I had ever seen or touched.
Christmas Eve comes, and the scene from the little olive wood stable comes to life. A little eight-year-old Mary rides into our makeshift Bethlehem on the back of Dad the Donkey. A bathrobed Joseph leads the way, and asks a very young innkeeper if there is room for them in the inn. A baby doll is brought forth, wrapped in crocheted swaddling clothes, and lain in a small laudry basket. The shepherds quake in fear as an angel brings them good tidings of great joy from atop a chair or the piano bench or the arm of the couch, and our little heavenly host joins her for a chorus of "Angels We Have Heard on High." The wisemen (who strangely wear the same bathrobes and costumes as the shepherds and Joseph) come with their gifts of yellow-gold tin, cinnamon, and lavender to worship the baby Jesus. There, in our living room stable, our family can remember here and now that a child was born for us a long time ago in a country on the other side of the world.
It is time for bed on Christmas Eve, but I lie awake. The words of the scriptures we read tonight echo in my head, and I picture the nativity. I close my eyes and imagine... and suddenly I am in a different place and time. It is night. All around me are buildings made of stone and streets laden with cobblestones and dust. I wear sandals and loose robes, my hair covered by a piece of pale linen. The wind blows and I am cold, but the night is not bitter. The streets are dark. I can see lights on in some of the windows and doorways of the buildings and envy the warmth and company within. I don't know where to go or which door to knock at, and I am alone.
On a moments' whim I look up - and stop to stare in amazement. High above, against the backdrop of a black night sky, a new star shines. It is so big and bright it dims every other star in comparison simply by existing. It seems so close, as though it hangs directly overhead. I begin the direction in which it lies, as though following a distant lighthouse across an ocean. Presently I come to an old stable, worn and out of the way - and suddenly I know where I am.
A man a woman lie near each other on the hay a few feet from me. They don't look up when I step into the light of their little flickering candle - it's as though they don't see me there. I don't see them for long, either - my eyes become fixated on a worn manger in the center of the room, and a beautiful new baby lying wrapped in linen upon the hay. He is asleep. As I draw close to the manger, he pushes his little eyes open and looks up at me. I sink to my knees beside the manger, unable to take my eyes away from the holy child, tears running unhindered down my cheeks. I speak to little Jesus for a while, and pray to the Father and worship my God and King - there in the light of a single candle in a lowly stable.
I will not write the words I say. They change every time I picture this scene, and no matter what I say it is Sacred, words to be known only by my Savior and me. Can you imagine it - that first Christmas? I picture the awe-struck shepherds, the wise magi, and the people of Bethlehem looking upon the face of the Savior - our Savior, Jesus Christ, a baby. I see that and I hear the angel of Nephi's vision declaring the same words to me that he did to that prophet - "Behold the condescension of God!"
That is what Christmas is all about. In the midst of all the other traditions and joys and excitement that make Christmas special, remember always the most special thing of all - that Infant Holy in a lowly manger in Bethlehem, born into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. It is the greatest gift that has ever been given in the history of all creation, there in a stable surrounded by humble animals and a few believers who knew the poor child for the King He would become.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Merry Christmas, everyone. 'Til next time...