Last year, just a few days before Christmas, I went to a hobby store after church to grab a new wreath for my front door. Amidst pawed-through piles of plastic greens and overflowing tangles of glittering ribbon, I heard a plaintive voice cry out in the wilderness, “I am SO SICK of Christmas.” A mom, weary to the bone, was wandering the aisles with two children who looked to have been about four and seven years old. The seven-year-old must have been asking to buy things, because when she heard her mom’s words, she put down the trinket that she was holding, and you could see the joy flee her face. Her tiny shoulders drooped; she looked at the floor; and she grew silent with shame. “Just so sick of it ALL,” muttered the mom, utterly defeated. Trying to save the situation, the four-year-old piped up with forced cheer, “I’m so sick of Christmas, too, Mommy. Come on, let’s go home.” And the family trudged out of the store.
No matter how hard we try to live a quiet, spiritual Advent, we can all identify to some extent with this disheartened family. The stress of a modern American Christmas can be overwhelming for us, and it can rub off on our children. How do we keep from drowning in debt and tinsel? How do we keep our family’s focus on the God who is coming into the world, rather than on the gifts piling up under the tree?
Luke 2:15-20 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Imagine the shepherds hurrying across the fields, winding their way down the alleys, listening for the dim cry of a newborn baby. Imagine them coming hesitantly into the stable, kneeling down to see this strange baby whose birth sent angels out into the fields after them. Can you feel their confusion, their wonder, their hope?
Now, imagine them now hurrying through the hobby store aisles, past the piles of garlands, around the piles of plastic ornaments and tacky Santa Clauses. You, along with the dispirited mom and her kids, are taken aback at the sight of these tattered shepherds roaming the store with such purpose. You crane your necks and start to follow, wondering what is going on. Deep into the store you go, until there, in a back corner, you find the baby Jesus, perched on a bed of tinsel, with a pale Mary at his side. You feel a strange new hope, the hint of a new kind of life, spinning around this tiny baby, as you kneel with the shepherds on the cold linoleum floor.
“Would you like to hold him?” asks Mary.
As parents, we know what it feels like to hold our child in our arms for the first time. Whether we have given birth or been given the gift of a child through adoption, we remember that feeling of overwhelming miracle. The skin softer than velvet, the delicate fingers and toes, our incomparable relief in watching life-giving breath rise and fall in the tiny chest--a baby moves us to adoration and praise for the miracle of life, the miracle of creation. Nothing opens our hearts like the vulnerable weight of a baby cradled in our arms. Nothing quiets our souls like the skin-to-skin touch of a sleeping child.
As you remember holding your precious babies, imagine what it would be like to hold God in your arms, to lift the sleeping baby Jesus out of the hay and to hold him next to your heart. Can you smell the sweetly pungent baby-smell? Can you feel the weight of him? Do you see the flickering half-smile and the passing frown on his face? Imagine the Creator of the heavens and the earth sighing and snuggling in for as long as it takes for him to grow strong in your arms and in your life.
Adults: Using the image above, or another image of Mary and Jesus, spend some time in prayer. Find a comfortable, quiet place and kneel. Gaze at the image, letting Mary and Jesus gaze on you. After spending some time in silence, hear Mary ask you, “Would you like to hold him?” Say “yes” and take him in your own arms. Sing the verses that you know of, “O Come Let Us Adore Him,” or play a recording of it, while you remain kneeling. Let adoration heal your wearied heart.
This is an exercise recommended by the Rev. Martin Smith in a DMin seminar at the University of the South, June 2016. A variation is also described in his book, The Word is Very Near You (Cowley Publications, 1989), 135-36.
With preschool and elementary school children: You can make this a family activity with younger children, keeping the prayer time shorter or longer, depending on the age and attention-span of the youngest child. Try it during the 12 Days of Christmas. Little children might enjoy this activity every night during Christmas as a bedtime ritual.
A variation would be to spend some prayer time every night around the crèche, adding the animals and shepherds one by one each night during these last weeks of Advent. On Christmas Eve, you can add the baby Jesus and begin the exercise as described above. Later, on January 6, you can add the wise men and imagine that you are placing a gift before the baby. What would it be?
With teens: Teens might balk at the vulnerability of playing an imaginative “game” like this with the family, unless it is a ritual that they have grown up with since childhood. They might be willing to participate, however, if you frame it as a way to invite their younger siblings or the children of friends into the true spirit of Christmas. Another option is to give them the job of going online to find and print out in color a picture of the baby Jesus that you are going to put in a frame and keep on the dining room table during the 12 days of Christmas, as inspiration for family prayer. Encourage them to give their choice some thought. Then be sure to follow through and use the image that they choose. Chat with them about what made them choose that image, out of so many others.