When the Manger Feels Empty

But when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
— Galatians 4:4-5

I have a secret. And it’s about Christmas. And it might be something you don’t want to hear.

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Christmas doesn’t depend on you.

If you didn’t do another thing between now and the 25th of December, Christmas would still be Christmas. Honestly.

Some times we feel a lot like Mary, going into labor in the middle of the street, don’t we? The days of December tick by so fast and we barely have time to catch our breath. Suddenly, just like that, Christmas Eve and then Christmas Day arrive. Ready or not, here it comes. And we feel so not ready. If only we had an extra couple of days. Or maybe a week.

The idea that what we do is what makes Christmas Christmas is a lie.

Because the truth of what makes Christmas what it is for us as Christians remains true regardless of how ready we feel or what we’ve done to prepare. We celebrate Christmas because Jesus, our God, Savior and King, came to earth as a baby; as a Christian this knowledge comes easy, right? But the part we often neglect to remember is that the entire reason He had to come in the first place was because we could not do what needed to be done.

Now I want you to read the Galatians passage again:

“When the time had fully come, God sent His Son…”

The Bible tells us that the time had fully come for Jesus to be born. But it sure wasn’t because Mary & Joseph were ready. It sure wasn’t because the most amazing inn had its best room available. And it surely wasn’t because the world was a safe place for Jesus to be. But still, Paul tells us that the time had fully come according to God’s plan.

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This Advent season, I’m using the letters in the word manger to help remind me that it’s not about what I’ve accomplished in my preparations that makes or breaks the holiday:

Motive

The Christmas cards are fun. The decorations are beautiful to look at. The cookies are oh-so delicious. But what’s the why behind your actions? Is it helping to prepare your heart for His coming or is it distracting your focus? Is it enriching the season for your family or is it stressing you (and therefore, the others in your home) out and causing arguments and exhaustion? Are you enjoying your preparations or are do you look at them with a feeling of obligation or dread?

Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.
— Galatians 1:10

Ability

Not everyone is Martha Stewart or Joanna Gaines. One of my friends has incredible patience to sit down with her kids each year and have them help her hand make every Christmas card they send. Another is an incredible host and absolutely loves having people over. Another makes the most delicious cookies with unbelievably intricate frosting decorations. Yet another is extremely generous and has the financial means to purchase great gifts for everyone and anyone. I am none of the above. But I’m learning to accept that. God made you YOU, with your own set of talents and abilities. It’s only an exercise in frustration (and a whole lot of debt!) if you try to magically become someone that you’re not. It’s ok to buy — and not make — the cookies. It’s ok to get Papa Murphy’s pizza on Christmas Eve. It’s ok to say “no” to sending cards. And it’s ok to spend ten meaningful dollars on a gift for someone who you know will spend way more than that on you.

Need

Consider the needs of you and your family this year. Has it been a rough one financially? Your family members don’t need grandiose gifts to know that you love them. Has it been an exhausting one with the addition of a baby? Maybe this year you don’t need to run around to all of the family events. Has work been more stressful than usual? You don’t need to make a half dozen different kinds of cookies simply because it’s what you always do. What about your spiritual needs? Do you need to connect with God and dig deeper into the Word before Christmas arrives? Let that be at the top of your to-do list.

‘Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’
— Luke 10:41-42

Grace

Oh, those troubled relationships. Things only get harder at the holidays, don’t they? The questions of who will host, when will we eat, what will we eat, when will we go to church, whose Christmas program will Gramma & Grampa attend this year…it goes on and on. Not to mention the idle chit-chat at the get-togethers themselves. It can be exhausting. (For tips on how to handle these relationships, be sure to read Lisa’s blog post from earlier this week if you missed it, “4 Ways to Nurture Challenging Relationships this Christmas”.) But even the healthiest, friendliest relationships can strain under the weight of the season. Let grace be your guide in these situations. Ask yourself, “Is this a battle worth fighting?” Maybe it is. Or maybe, it’s best to just move on and let it go.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
— Philippians 2:3-4

Expectations

I remember my first Christmas after becoming a mother. I had offered to host Christmas Eve, thinking it would be easier than packing up half the house and trying to get my girls to nap somewhere else. I had this picture perfect first Christmas with my babies in my mind. I got them adorable outfits with matching tights, I found a dress that didn’t show my still-pregnant-looking belly and I decked out the table like something in a Pottery Barn catalog. And the day came and one of the girls had a blow out in her tights and needed to be changed before anyone even arrived. I spent what felt like half of the evening in my bedroom nursing and barely sat at the table which I had so carefully decorated to eat. I went to bed crying that night — hormones were probably partly to blame but if I’m being honest, I was full of disappointment. It didn’t even feel like Christmas because life got in the way. I was expecting a magical day full of lighthearted laughter, great conversation and babies who followed their schedule perfectly. The celebration of the Savior’s birth, which doesn’t change, was happening right before my eyes and I refused to join in because it wasn’t like I had planned. Evaluate your expectations: are they realistic? Are you focused on the things of this world which disappoint us time and time again?

Rest

I don’t care what you have to do, but find time to rest during this Advent and Christmas season. Schedule it if you have to. Say no to that one last commitment which is going to put you over the edge and steal more time from connecting with your heavenly Father. Literally set a timer for 5 minutes and sit in a chair, eyes closed, reflecting on what Christmas means to you as a child of God and soaking up just how much the Creator of the world loves you.

You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound. I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
— Psalm 4:7-8

I’m praying for you this Advent, my friend. Praying that the devil’s lies about Christmas are replaced with truth: The truth about Christmas, the fact that the King of the world came as a tiny babe at just the right time to do what we were unable to do for ourselves.

No, Christmas doesn’t depend on us. And for that, my friend, we can be eternally grateful.

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O Long-Expected Jesus

As in years past, this Advent has been filled with imperfection and failed expectations. I never did finish – or even start, for that matter – many of the “homemade” gifts I intended to give.

The family Christmas letter I pride myself on writing every year once again found its way into the mailbox much later than I would've hoped, despite my most hopeful efforts to not be rushing to get it out before Christmas Eve.

I used a credit card to purchase a couple gifts this year even though I knew it was a bad idea.

I fell days behind on my Christmas Scripture Writings – multiple times.

Nights came and went when I realized after tucking the kids into bed that we had again forgotten or ran out of time for their nightly Advent story.

And baby Jesus has been in the manger for weeks already.

I'm guessing I had you up until that last statement. Allow me to explain:

One of my clearest and dearest memories of Christmas as a child revolves around my mom's nativity set. Simple yet beautiful, it sat on the floor underneath our tree every year. The manger, however, was one of those two-piece figurines which enabled baby Jesus to be removed from the scene. So the manger itself would sit empty, all throughout Advent. Then on Christmas Eve, after returning home from singing our hearts out at our Christmas program at church, whomsoever year it was to have the honor would place baby Jesus in His lowly manger between Mary and Joseph. That's how you knew Christmas had really arrived.

Empty Manger

As an adult with children of my own now, there are many traditions such as this one which I try to re-create with my family. Knowing the impact that small gesture had on me as a child makes me crave that for my own kids.

So I now have a nativity with a baby Jesus separate from the manger.

Only it's not going quite as I had planned. And I'm learning.

I put out our nativity set not long after Thanksgiving – Mary, Joseph, a shepherd or two, even a donkey and a cow. But baby Jesus I kept hidden away, intending to wrap Him up and present it as the first gift the kids would open on Christmas morning.

But my boys wouldn't have it.

After carefully arranging the nativity (sans the baby) and walking away, my two-year old twin sons promptly scurried over and began pointing. And not a simple point of curiosity. This kind of pointing meant something was seriously wrong.

Where is the baby? they seemed to say. Aren't you forgetting something?

As I returned to the scene, I began attempting to explain that it was not yet Christmas and that we needed to wait for the baby to arrive. Wait.

But again, there was no reasoning to be done.

I watched as those boys stood there, in front of the stable and Mary and Joseph. Waiting. Wondering. Wanting. They would not tire. They would not concede.

It wasn't until I finally placed the baby figurine in its rightful place that the boys moved on to something else. Once the baby was in His bed, all was right with the world and the two could go back to playing.

But I remained, crouched in front of a 2-inch baby, with tears in my eyes.

Jesus

My boys would not leave until the Christ child arrived.

Granted their fascination most likely had more to do with their recent obsession with babies than their knowledge of who that baby really represents, but I still couldn't help but feel God's tug at my heart through the actions of my boys.

After all, isn't that how we all should feel? We simply cannot move on until we know that Jesus has arrived?

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. And yes, there are many things which I feel are “undone” or incomplete. I also know that tomorrow and Christmas Day itself will come and go and with it, a slight feeling of disappointment and let down will follow. A let down that will inevitably make me wonder what was the point of putting up all of the decorations just to take them down or serving a Christmas meal which I knew none of the kids would have any interest in eating?

But the truth is that if our Advents were perfect and our Christmases pure magic, Christ's birth would mean nothing. Our Heavenly Father's almighty plan is necessary because of the imperfections within and around us with the baby in the manger at its center.

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Maybe next year I'll be able to explain my “plan” to the boys clearly enough that they'll let me get away with an empty manger through Advent. Or maybe they won't. Or maybe I'll just not be able to wait and have to place Him there for my own benefit after learning so much through watching my boys. But regardless of where the baby ends up for those three weeks prior to Christmas, I know one thing for certain: I'll be anxiously awaiting His return!

Come, O long-expected Jesus, Born to set your people free; From our fears and sins release us By your death on Calvary. Israel's strength and consolation, Hope to all the earth impart, dear desire of ev'ry nation, Joy of ev'ry longing heart.

 

Born your people to deliver, Born a child and yet a king; Born to reign in us forever, Now your gracious kingdom bring. By your own eternal Spirit Rule in all our hearts alone; By your all-sufficient merit Raise us to your glorious throne.

 

~Hymn #22 in Lutheran Worship, 1st published in 1835

 

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