Given the tragedy in Connecticut these past few days, I felt sharing this talk from Jeffrey R. Holland might give some needed perspective.
Jeffrey R Holland
Ricks Devotional December 1, 1998
…My text is from the second chapter of Luke, and you’ll all recognize that as the text for the Christmas story. It is the text from which most of our Christmas messages are given. But the passage I am going to use from Luke 2 is not a verse we very often hear at this season of the year, nevertheless, I believe it is at the heart of the Christmas message. I speak of the beautiful moment, approximately 40 days after Mary’s delivery of the child, when she and Joseph took the baby named Jesus to the temple…where the infant was to be presented unto the Lord. It was desirable for all children to be so presented in the temple, but in the Israelite tradition, it was of particular importance to present the first born son; a rite stemming from the miraculous days of salvation in Egypt, when the first born of the Israelite families were spared destruction. In memorial, all first born sons, in all of Israel, were thereafter dedicated to the service of the Lord, including Levitical service in the temple itself. It was not practical for every first born son to be presented there, let alone to render service there. Nevertheless, the eldest son in a family was still claimed as the lord’s own in a special way and had to be formally exempted from his requirement by the pain of an offering, or a redemption. Its here at this point of the story that we realize just how poor Joseph and Mary are. Think of Thanksgiving, think of Christmas, and think of these two. The standard offering on behalf of such a child was a yearling lamb and a pigeon, or a turtle dove. But in cases of severe poverty, the Law of Moses allowed the substitution of a second dove, in place of the more expensive lamb. Mary and Joseph presented their son to his true father that day with an offering of two pigeons; two turtle doves. This young couple and this son who would save us all knew what it was like to face economic privation at Christmastime.
As they made their way toward the temple that day, the Holy Spirit was resting upon a beloved elderly man named Simeon, one who the scriptures describe as just and devout. It was revealed to this gentle and venerable man that he would not die before having seen the Messiah, the Lord’s Christ, as Luke phrases it. The spirit then led him to the temple where he saw a young carpenter, and his even younger wife, enter the sanctuary with a new born babe cradled in his mother’s arms. Simeon, who had waited all his life for the consolation of Israel…took that consolation in his arms, praised God, and said, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to light the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel. And Joseph and his mother marveled at those things which were spoken of him. And Simeon blessed them and said unto Mary his mother, “behold this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel. For a sign which shall be spoken against, yea a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” I’m suggesting to you today in Rexburg, that there is a profound Christmas message in the one this dear old man gave to sweet and pure Mary in that first Christmas season. He was joyously happy. He had lived to see the son of God be born. He had held that child in his very arms. He could now die the happiest man in all of Jerusalem, maybe in all the world. But his joy was not of the superficial kind. It was not without its testing and its trying. In that sense it didn’t have much to do with toys, or trinkets, or new clothes, or tinsel, though these have their Christmas place. No, his joy had something to do with what he said was the fall and rising again of many in Israel and with this child’s life, or at least with his death, which would be like a sword piercing through his beloved mother’s soul, we might well ask, was such an ominous warning, such a fateful prophecy, appropriate in this season of birth and season of joy? Surely such was untimely, maybe even unseemly, at that particular moment, when the Son of God was so young and so tender and so safe and his mother so thrilled with his birth and with his beauty. Well, our answer is yes, it was appropriate and yes, it was important. I submit that unless we see all the meaning and the joy of Christmas, the way old Simeon saw it all and in a sense forced Joseph and Mary to see it even if they didn’t want to, the whole of Christ’s life, the profound mission, the end as well as the beginning, if we do not do that, then Christmas will be just another day off work; a little food a little fun a little football. A measure of personal loneliness and family sorrow for many others, the true meaning, the unique and lasting and joyous meaning, of the birth of this baby would be in the life he would lead and especially in his death, in his triumphant atoning sacrifice (remember why Joseph and Mary are in the temple in the first place), it would be in his prison-bursting resurrection. It is life at the other end of the manger that gives this moment of nativity in Bethlehem its ultimate meaning. Special as this child was and divine as was his conception, without that day of salvation, wherein he would gain an everlasting victory over death and hell on behalf of every man woman and child who would ever be born, you and me, until that day should come, this baby’s life and mission would not be complete. Worse yet, without that triumphant atonement and resurrection, he might have been remembered only as one born in abject poverty, scorned in his own native village, and tortured to death by a ruthless Roman regime that knew everything about torture and death. But wise old Simeon, who understood all of this (he is an old man) he understood that birth was ultimately for the death, and a death that he was soon to face, it thrilled his soul that salvation was come. Thus Christmas was sobering as well as sweet for him, and so too will most Christmases be for us. Lying among those gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were also a crown of thorns, a makeshift royal robe, and a Roman spear.
I do not want this to be an unhappy message; indeed I intend it to be a supremely joyful message; a message of special comfort. But to make it that, I must speak of Christmases and other days in our individual and collective lives that for whatever reason may not be very happy or seem to be always the “season to be jolly.” For many people in many places, this year, this Christmas, this December, may not be an entirely happy Christmas. One not filled with complete joy because of the circumstances facing a spouse or a friend, a child or a grandchild. Or perhaps that was the case another Christmas in another year, but one which brings a painful annual memory every time the put the tree up. Or, and may Heaven bless us that this is not be so, perhaps this may be the case in some future Christmas, when unexpectedly, and seemingly undeservedly, something goes terribly wrong. When there is some public or very personal tragedy, in which it may seem, at least for a time that, “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”
By way of illustration, let me share a few examples that I pray are not too painful or too personal for anyone in attendance today. I recall that some years ago, in the very heart of the holiday season, a fire broke out on a conveyer belt 5000 ft into the Wilburg mine, near Orangeville in Emery County, Utah. The story gripped the entire state and then drew national attention. One man miraculously escaped, but all 27 of the others had finally been found or were declared dead by Sunday, December 23rd, two days before Christmas. On Monday, December 24, an article in the Deseret News began, “Today, in church, watching his mother sob, Chris Pugalese knew that this Christmas time was going to be different. His mother, Cathy, lost no one in the Wilburg mine fire, but she, like others, felt the pain of those who did. Chris may not quite understand that the sadness that dampened his family’s Christmas destroyed the holiday joy of 27 other families. Those families may never again celebrate Christmas without recalling the death of a father, a son, a daughter, or a brother.”
More recently, tragedy struck even a little closer to our family. Exactly one week before Christmas in 1994, a Sunday morning, a freak accident on Hwy 128, nine miles northeast of Moab Utah, plunged four teenagers to their deaths in the frigid water of the Colorado River. They were magnificent young people by every standard; a student body president, a valedictorian, two Eagle Scouts, a Laurel class president, traveling that morning to sing at a missionary friend’s homecoming in nearby Castle Valley. Two of the four were brothers, Joseph and Gary Welling. Exemplary son’s of our childhood friend and 20 year old St. George schoolmate, Elaine Faussa Welling. This Christmas won’t be as difficult for the Welling and Stewart and Adaire families as 1994 was, but it will be difficult because the memories will return. It will reopen a deep wound and every Christmas for the rest of their lives will undoubtedly carry some echo of that Sunday morning pain for those families.
Now, may I be even a bit more personal, and in conclusion, leave you with something considerably more cheerful than all of this has been so far. On the evening of December 23rd, 1976, my father underwent surgery to relieve the effect of osteoarthritis in the vertebrae of his back, vertebrae which were beginning to impinge on his spinal cord. The surgery was successful, but near the conclusion of it, he suffered a major heart attack. 8 hours later, he suffered another one. From those two attacks, he sustained massive damage to a heart that was already defective from an illness suffered in his youth. By the time we finally got to see him, wired and tubed and gray and unconscious, it was midmorning on December 24th, Christmas Eve. “Magnificent timing,” I muttered to the universe. Pat and I stayed at his side all day, as much for my mother’s sake as for my father’s. He was not going to live, and age 60, she had never had to confront that possibility in their entire married life. As evening came along, we took her to our home. She needed calming and our three little children deserved some kind of Christmas Eve. Pat has created a wonderful world of holiday traditions in our family and we tried to do the Christmas Eve portion of those, but it was a pretty joyless exercise, I’ll be quick to admit. We tried to laugh and sing, but all that these children understood was that their grandmother was crying, that their dad was very sad, and that their grandfather was somewhere alone in a hospital, not free for the Christmas visit that had been planned. After hanging just a few of their mother’s annual Christmas Eve gingerbread men, they uncharacteristically suggested that perhaps they should just go to bed a little early this year, reassuring everyone that this was their choice and something that they really wanted to do. You can imagine how convincing they sounded; about as convincing as our caroling had been. I gave my mother a blessing, convinced her to try to get some sleep. I stayed with Pat for a while, putting out a Christmas gift or two, and then I told her to hold the family together, as she has done all of our married life, and that I was going back to the hospital. There was obviously nothing I could do there. She knew it and I knew it. But she also knew it was my Santa Clause who was lying there alone, with all those tubes and IVs and monitors. And she said not a word to try to get me to stay.
So at the hospital, I sat and walked and read and walked and looked in on my dad and walked. He would not, in fact, recover from all of this. I suppose everyone knew that. But the nursing staff were kind to me and gave me free access to them and to the entire hospital. A couple of the nurses wore Santa Clause hats and all the nursing stations were decorated for the season. During the course of the evening I think I checked them all out, every one, in every wing of the hospital, and sure enough on every floor and in every wing, it was Christmas. You’ll forgive me if I admit that somewhere in the early hours of the morning I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. “Why does it have to be like this?” I thought. “Why does it have to be on Christmas? Of all the times to lose your dad, did it have to be the night when dads are the greatest guys in the world? And gifts for little boys somehow appear, that in later years would be recognized to be well beyond the meager Holland budget? Lying under that oxygen tent was the most generous man I had ever known; a Kris Kringle to end all Kris Kringles. And by some seemingly cruel turn of cardiac fate, he was in the process of starting to die on Christmas morning.” In my self pity, it did not seem right to me and I confess I was muttering something of that aloud as I walked what surely must have been every square inch of public and a fair portion of private space in the hospital. Not really sure how many people I startled that morning.
Then and there, 2 or 3 am, I guess, in a quiet hospital immersed as I was in some sorrow and too much selfishness, heaven sent me a small, personal, prepackaged revelation; a tiny Christmas declaration that was as powerful as any I have ever received. In the midst of mumbling about the very poor calendaring I thought the Lord had arranged in all of this, I heard the clear unbroken cry of a baby. It truly startled me. I had long since ceased paying attention to where I was wandering that night and only then did I realize I was in the maternity ward. Somewhere I suppose near the nursery. To this day, I do not know just where that baby was or exactly how I heard it. I like to think it was a brand new baby, taking that first breath and announcing that he or she had arrived in the world, the fact of which everyone was supposed to take note. It may have been just a baby saying it was time to eat and wondering where that comforting cuddle from a mother was. But wherever and whoever it was, God could not have sent me a more penetrating wake up call. I felt a little like another, who in reply to his questions heard the Lord declare, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” You’ll recognize that as God’s statement with some sternness to Job. It was as if the Lord were saying, “Listen, this is the happiest night in the whole wide world for some young couple, Jeff. Some couple who may otherwise be as poor as church mice. Maybe this is their first baby. Maybe he is their own personal “consolation in Israel”, perhaps the only consolation they have right now in what may be a very difficult economic life. In any case, they love him and he already loves them, and think of the calendaring, think of it; born on Christmas day. What a reminder that they have each other now and forever. Whatever happens; good times or bad, they have each other. Whatever pain may lie ahead, whatever sword may pierce their souls from time to time, they will be triumphant because the Prince of Peace was also born this same day once in Royal David’s city. Temporary separation at death and the other difficulties that attend us as we all move toward that end are part of the price we pay for love in this world. The price we pay for the joy of birth and of family ties and the fun of Christmas together. Old Simeon; weathered and tried and tested old Simeon had it right. And so did the Morning Stars and the shepherds and the angels who shouted for joy, praising God and singing Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men. “Jeff, my boy,” he seemed to be saying with that baby’s cry, “I expected more from you. If you can’t remember why all of this matters, then your pitiful approach to Christmas is no more virtuous than the over-commercialization everyone laments these days. You need to shape up just a little. You need to put your theology where your Christmas carols are. You can’t separate Bethlehem from Gethsemane, or the hasty flight into Egypt from the slow journey to the summit of Calvary. It is of one piece. It is a single plan. It considers the fall and rising again of many in Israel, but always in that order. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain or privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us. And that baby, my son, my own beloved and only begotten son in the flesh, born “away in a manger with no crib for his bed”, makes all the difference in the world, all the difference in time and eternity, all the difference everywhere, worlds without number, a lot farther than your feeble eye is apparently able to see.”
Well, I felt reprimanded. I can’t fully describe to you what happened to me that morning, but it was one of the most revelatory Christmas experiences I have ever had or assume I ever will have. And it dawned on me that that could have been my young parents who were so happy that morning. I was a December baby and my mother never wearies of telling me that that was her happiest Christmas ever. Perhaps the joy they felt that day at my birth was to be inextricably, inseparably, eternally linked with my sorrow at their passing; that we could never expect to have the one without the other. It came to me in a profound way that in this life no one can have real love without eventually dealing with real loss. And we certainly can’t rejoice over one’s birth and the joy of living, unless we are prepared to understand and accommodate and accept with some grace, the inevitability including the untimeliness, on occasion, of difficulty and trouble and death. These are God’s gifts to us; birth and life, death and salvation, the whole divine experience in all its richness and complexity. So there lay my dad; the great gift giver, he who found bicycles and bb-guns and presents of every kind somewhere. Now he was making his way out of the world, starting that journey on Christmas day, on the wings of the greatest gift ever given. I thought of another father; “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” True fathers and mothers were all alike, I realized, coming up with the best gifts imaginable, at what is often terrible personal cost. And I am obviously not speaking of material gifts or monetary costs. So I was mildly but firmly rebuked that night by the cry of a newborn baby. I got a little refresher course in the Plan of Salvation and a powerful reminder of why this is the season to be jolly and why any Christmas is a time of comfort, whatever our circumstances may be. In the same breath I was also reminded that life will not always be as cozy as chestnuts roasting on an open fire or an unending splendor while we stroll, walking in a winter wonderland. No, life will have its valleys and its peaks, its moments for the fall and moments for the rising in the lives of all of God’s children. So now its old Simeon’s joyful embrace of that little baby, just before his death, that is one of the favorite images I try to remember at Christmas. I’ve repented since that night. In fact, I did some repenting there in the maternity ward. If you have to lose your dad, what more comforting time in all the world than Christmas? None of us would want those experiences for the Wilburg mine families or the Moab seminary students or a thousand other painful experiences some people have at Christmas, but even so, in the end, it is all right. It is ok. These are sad experiences, terribly wrenching experiences, with difficult moments for years and years to come. But because of the birth in Bethlehem and what it led to, these are not tragic experiences. They have a happy ending. There is a rising after the falling. There is life always; new births and rebirths and resurrection to eternal life. It is the joy of the stable, the joy of the maternity ward, forever.
“If thou hadst been here, my brother had not died” Martha said to him once, probably in the same tone of voice I had been using up and down the hallways of that hospital, “if that arthritis just had not required surgery, there wouldn’t have been any strain on his heart. If that conveyer belt had just been shifted a little to the right or to the left, it wouldn’t have started on fire. If there just hadn’t been a small patch if ice on that particular stretch, so close to the Colorado River…”and on and on and on. Jesus has one answer for all of us. One answer, for all the whys and what ifs and would haves and could haves and should haves of our mortal journey. Looking sweet Martha firmly in the eyes, he said for all in Rexburg and Orangeville and Moab to hear, “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. Whoseover believeth in me shall never die.” Yes, for me, the most important Christmas visitor of all may have been old Simeon, who, not in the absence of hard days and long years, but because of them, would sing with us tonight at the top of his voice, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King. No more will sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He will come and make the blessings flow, far as the curse was found.” Of this Christmas witness, I am a witness, in the sacred and holy name of the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.