Ghosts of Christmas Past
A Word of Encouragement from Elizabeth Rice Handford
The films and stories of Christmas all seem to turn out so happily: It's a Wonderful Life turns out to be wonderful. The Miracle on 34th Street proves to be a real miracle. The Grinch who Stole Christmas gives it back. Scrooge turns out to be a nice guy in The Christmas Carol.
Except that it doesn't always turn out that way in real life.
Some are just sad because the living room looks so bare without the bright lights of the Christmas tree, and the trash overflows with Christmas debris. Some are sad because all those lovely families have gone back home, and you won't see them for another year. But some are sad because Christmas gifts so carefully planned were carelessly tossed aside. Some didn't hear the words of love they longed to hear. Some were confined with illness. Some were saddened by the memory of a past Christmas, when they lost the love they'd treasured a life-time.
But come to think of it, the Bible narrative about Christ's birth has somber overtones that don't seem to fit in at all with the joyous emotions we expect at Christmas.
It started out when the entire village of Nazareth discovered that their sweet, goody-goody Mary was pregnant and they branded her a harlot. (Thirty years later, Jesus was taunted by the religious leaders, "We were not born of fornication," reminding Him that they knew He had been born of fornication.)
Imagine how difficult that long trip down from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been for Mary, when her Baby was already due. Imagine how helpless she must as felt when they were turned away from the inn, so she was forced to deliver her holy Child in a smelly stable.
Mary took her 8-day-old Baby to the temple to be dedicated. It should have been a joyous celebration, but instead, an old man named Simeon warned her that the Baby was a "sign to be spoken against . . . and a sword shall pierce through your own soul also." What a grieving thought for a new mother to hear!
And think how it must have felt to be awakened by an angel in the middle of the night and warned to flee that very night, before the king's soldiers could murder the Child.
After murderous King Herod was dead, Joseph and Marry made the wearying journey home, but had to change their plans to find a place where the new king might not find them.
Oh, no, the Christmas story was not all joy for the One whose birth we celebrate, not from the first announcement of His coming until that awful day when He was nailed to a tree, accused of crimes He did not commit, and suffered a death He could have escaped, but didn't because He was intent on dying to save us from our sins.
Christmas was just the beginning, and that's the good news to comfort those who didn't get to enjoy the Christmas season they anticipated. One wonderful day we will celebrate together Christ's second coming to earth. Then our hearts will be completely satisfied.
"Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning."
The Glory Light Has Come!
A Christmas celebration with Elizabeth Rice Handford
Snoopy's stories (the famous Peanuts beagle) always began his stories with "It was a dark and stormy night." This story begins with a really, truly dark and stormy night. Walt and I were flying home to Greenville one night after visiting our families in Tennessee.
We knew it was going to be a bumpy flight across the dark mountains: embedded thunder-storms, heavy rain, strong winds, and the weather at our home airport down to minimums. Often our little plane, 1368 Juliette, dropped sickeningly in a down draft only to climb again. The engine droned on sturdily. Occasionally Atlanta Air Traffic Control gave us a deviation to fly around a thunderstorm. The controllers kept up a steady conversation with us, seeming to realize our flight was lonely and scary. The heavy headwinds made the flight much longer than usual.
At last ATC turned us over to Greenville approach, and we set the radios for the final approach to runway 36. Our navigation radio picked up the ILS signal. We made the turn to the north and began our descent: black darkness, no gleam of light, no letting up of the buffeting winds. We were nearing the minimum altitude, where we'd have to abort the landing if we could not see the runway.
And then, suddenly! Breaking through the overcast, we saw the beautiful, intense runway lights of our home airport directly ahead, brilliant, clear. They beckoned rest, and peace, and safety.
That's a poor example of the kind of sweet relief, the light out of darkness, that the dear Lord Jesus brought us when He was born that Christmas so long ago. The Apostle John tells us the Christmas story, but perhaps in a way we are unaccustomed to hearing:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
All things were made through Him,
and without Him nothing was made that was made.
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.
And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
Gospel of John 1:1-5
Then John tells us how Jesus, the Light, that Glory Light, came to rescued us from the darkness of sin and evil in this sad and needy world:
That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. . . .
He came unto His own, and His own received Him not,
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God,
to those who believe in His name. . . .
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory,
the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
Gospel of John 1:9-14
If ever someone needed that exultant, wonderful Light from Heaven, surely our generation does. We live in quarrelsome, uncertain times, beset by fear and vulnerable to evil, incredible darkness. Thank God, this Christmas we can worship the Lord Jesus, the true Light. He came to redeem us, to make us His own, to bring us to Heaven. What glory, what blinding glory!
The Christmas That Almost Wasn't
A Word of Thanksgiving by Elizabeth Rice Handford
I had always celebrated Christmas with my whole family, Daddy and Mother and my sisters. I grew up, fell in love with Walt, married him, and we continued to celebrate with the extended family: Mother and Daddy and my sisters' spouses and all the dear little cousins burbling around. And so it was for the first 36 years of my life.
But in the 37th year of my life, that all changed. Walt had accepted a call to be the new pastor of a church in Greenville, South Carolina, and he'd promised we'd be there by January 1. It was impossible to keep our treasured traditions. The day before Christmas, the huge Atlas van left with all our family belongings. Our family of nine celebrated Christmas day at McDonalds, and, as my children still remind me, on that illustrious day, nobody had to share: everybody got his very own hamburger and french fries and milk shake.
I had kept out a single strand of Christmas lights. Son John brought home a branch of a spruce tree someone had thrown away. We scotch-taped it to a window, strung the lights, and had a sort of Christmas tree to decorate our empty house. And the day after Christmas, after an emotion-filled courtroom hearing that confirmed we could adopt the child who had lived with us for five years, we piled the nine of us into the Chevy station wagon and started the 700-mile journey to the home we'd never seen.
It was the Christmas that almost wasn't. We had broken every Christmas tradition we'd ever made! No gifts. No carols around the Christmas tree. No turkey and dressing. No sweet hellos. No Christmas poems and stories recited by the grandchildren. In fact, no Christmas.
But then I reminded myself: Christmas never had been primarily about the familiar carols and extravagant foods and loving family gathered around the tree. Christmas simply meant that God had loved us so very much that He'd given us His precious Son to be our Savior. That's what Christmas is all about. And even now, I struggle to find the words to express how marvelous that gift is, and I can't find them. . . which is exactly what the Apostle Paul said when he tried to describe the gift of Jesus:
Thanks be unto God for His inexpressible Gift!
2 Corinthians 9:15 (nkjv)
And now it's time to celebrate another Christmas. But celebrate is a hard word for me to use, because I've lost the dear husband with whom I celebrated Christmas for 69 wonderful years. My temptation is to focus on the loss, the deprivation, after so many years of joy. But if I do, I've lost the indescribable joy of what Christmas simply and truly is: the gift of Jesus, who came to give us forgiveness of sin and eternity in Heaven with Him. There is no gift, no joy, no tradition, that can match that reality. That is what I intend to celebrate this lovely Christmas season.
You may be suffering deep loneliness this Christmas because of some terrible loss. Though I know mere words can't lessen your grief, I remind you that Jesus came to earth to comfort them that mourn. So I ask you to say with me, this blessed Christmas,
"Thank God for his Son--a gift too wonderful for words!"
2 Corinthians 9:15 (nlt)
When BC Became AD, the Year of Our Lord
A Thought about Christmas from Libby Handford
It wasn't a very safe world to bring a child into, that time when wicked Roman emperors controlled the world. Jewish babies were especially vulnerable in the province of Palestine in a small corner of the eastern Mediterranean shore with its egomaniac King Herod. It was that era in history when time turned completely over on its axis, and BC, "Before Christ," became AD, "In the year of our Lord."
Two little baby boys were born just six months apart, second cousins, one born in the hill country of Judea, the other in Bethlehem, both born of miraculous intervention by God Himself. Baby John would be called "The Baptist," and his little cousin would be named "Jesus," because He was come to save us from our sins.
Baby John's father, Zechariah, held his miracle child in his arms and made this prophecy about him:
God has sent us a mighty Savior from the royal line of his servant David,
just as He promised through his holy prophets long ago. . . .
We have been rescued from our enemies, so we can serve God without fear,
in holiness and righteousness forever.
And you, my little son, will be called the prophet of the Most High,
because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
You will tell His people how to find salvation through forgiveness of their sins.
Because of God's tender mercy, the light from heaven is about to break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.
If ever this battered, weary world needed the message of Baby John the Baptist, surely it is now. There is no place on earth where there is not hatred and anger, threatening death and despair. But we can celebrate this Christmas in hope and joy, because Jesus, God Himself, was born two thousand years ago. We can serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness forever, because He came to die for our sins. We may feel like we "sit in darkness and in the shadow of death," but some wonderful day soon, "The light from Heaven" will break upon us. Jesus, blessed Jesus! He will give us peace!
So sing, choirs of angels! Sing, Christian, wherever you are, whatever your situation! Jesus, our Savior, was born to rescue you!