A series of biblical reflections and prayers from David L. Miller, pastor of faith formation at St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Naperville, IL. David is the former editor of The Lutheran magazine and Director of Spiritual Formation at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
Now it happened that at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be made of the
whole inhabited world. This census--the
first- took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and everyone went to be
registered, each to his own town. So Joseph set
out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee for Judaea, to David's
town called Bethlehem, since he was of David's House and line, in order to be
registered together with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. Now it
happened that, while they were there, the time came
for her to have her child, and she gave birth to a son, her first-born. She
wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no
room for them in the living-space (Luke 2:1-7).
Old photos float across my
computer screen. Every few seconds a new one appears. Today, I see Rachel, my
daughter, riding on a merry-go-round.
She is not a child but a
mother. She stands beside a wooden horse looking down on a dark-haired little
boy whose face is electric with wonder. Ethan is two, and life is new. Each fresh
experience awakens his tender soul to the startling joy of being alive.
Older eyes grow jaundiced,
having seen it all, the exhilaration of living, sadly, worn off. But not these
eyes. These eyes are alive to the wonder of living, filled with joy that it can
be so good.
But he is not most the arresting
face in the photo. That accolade belongs to Rachel, who looks down at him, her gentle
eyes and smile filled with a love she probably didn’t know she could feel until
she first felt the stirring of new life in her womb.
She transports me to the
manger. Hers are the eyes of Mary, the eyes of a mother moved beyond words at
the miracle of bringing forth new life and cradling it in her arms.
Our eyes are hungry for
Christmas. We need to see it … to feel it. We need Christmas to fill us with the
miracle of the love that shines in Rachel’s face. We need it to come and transport
us beyond our world-weariness and re-awaken the joy of the little boy in this
So we come to the manager, open
the eyes of imagination and watch Mary pick up her child. She wraps him in
strips of cloth, not because she is poor but because she loves him more than
she has words to say.
We look again into her eyes
and see shining there a love beyond her own, the love who brings Christmas, the
love who hungers to fill our souls and make our hearts supple and new once
Mary wraps her child and
looks down into his sleeping face. We’ve seen such scenes before. So look again
with the eye of memory and imagination.
See the heart of God nestled
by a human heart. The sight will awaken you to the wonder of the Love who
humbly comes, resting in a donkey’s feed box, swaddled in human love, hungry to
be held … by you.
For prayer and reflection
What thoughts, memories and emotions did today’s
reflection awaken in you?
Where do you see and feel Christmas re-awakening
your heart this year?
Remember a Christmas when you wanted and needed
your heart to be made new. What happened?
Silent Night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin mother and child. Holy Infant so tender and mild, sleep in
heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.
(“Silent Night”, text: Joseph
Mohr, music: Franz Gruber, 1840)
In the beginning was the Word: the Word
was with God and the Word
was God. He was with God in the
beginning. Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into
being except through him. What has come into being in him was life, life that was the light of men. …
The Word became flesh, he lived among us, and we
saw his glory, the glory that
he has from the Father as only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth(John 1:1-4, 14).
God speaks into the silence
of night. It has always been that way.
In the beginning, there was
nothing but silent darkness. Then God spoke and worlds exploded into existence.
Physicists tell us a big bang sent matter screaming through space at
unbelievable speed, scattering into distant corners that hadn’t before existed.
Over billions of years a
universe came to be--immensity and beauty, life and intelligence, where nothing
had been. God spoke in the silent darkness awakening life and wonder.
That’s the way it always is …
and certainly at Christmas.
Christmas comes in the deep
silence of night when few are awake to notice the birth of divine life in human
flesh. Songs of the season transport us to the night Jesus was born to listen
to all God is saying … and know.
“Silent Night, Holy Night; It Came upon a
Midnight Clear; O, Holy Night; other songs carry us to the dark streets of
Bethlehem that we might see and feel the light of life entering our world and
But the silence of night is
not always our friend. It does not always bring grace.
The wee hours are times when
memories haunt and fears attack. In the dark hours, restless hearts are perturbed
by past wounds and mistakes, and the looming future holds as much threat as
But here, too, God speaks in
the silence of our night. God invites us to the stable that saw Jesus’ birth
that we may imagine and look into his fragile infant face.
Imagine yourself there. Place
yourself in the stable, standing near an exhausted Mary, fitful, trying to
sleep. Joseph kneels at her side and holds her arm, and you stand close,
cradling an infant wrapped in strips of cloth, enfolded in your arms.
Put yourself there … and
listen. Listen to your heart. Listen in the great silence of your soul where
fears come and you wonder what life is about.
Listen … and look at this
child. What does God say in the silent darkness of your all-too-human heart?
Whatever else comes, hear the
tenderness at the heart of the God who hungers to be held and loved by you. In
the deep silence of your days and nights, God whispers a love that comes for us
and always will.
For prayer and reflection
What emotions, thoughts and memories were stirred
by today’s reflection?
When do you most need to hear what God is saying
through the birth of Jesus this year?
Where and when is it most possible for you to
hear God speaking to you?
Cold are the people, winter of life. We tremble in
shadows this cold endless night. Frozen in the snow lie roses sleeping. Flowers
that will echo the sunrise. Fire of hope is our only warmth. Weary, its flame
will be dying soon.
The Word was the real light that gives light to everyone;
he was coming into the world. He was in the world that had come into being
through him, and the world did not recognize him. He came to his own and his
own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him he gave power to
become children of God, … born not from human stock or human desire
or human will but from God himself (John 1:9-12).
Peggy and Michael met in the prayer corner last Sunday
morning. I saw them as I stepped from the Lord’s Table. Communion distribution
was done, but holy communion continued as they sat knee-to-knee, their hands
and hearts folded into each other.
The scene was just right. It was perfect: A prayer minister
with cancer held the hands of a father living in prayer for his seriously ill
child and the struggle of his family, which has endured many deaths.
Who knows how to pray for him like she does? I can’t imagine
anyone as qualified. They need each other more than the rest of us can
They sat together, the worn and worried, receiving the
warmth and grace of the other, joined so closely in prayer that you could not
see where one pair of hands left off and the other began.
It was the meeting of hope and fear. Hope won. Peace prevailed.
Christmas came once more. God became flesh as the grace of two Christ-filled
hearts blessed each other in Sunday morning light.
It couldn’t have happened if our congregation didn’t have
that prayer space in the front corner of the sanctuary for needy souls to care
for each other.
It certainly wouldn’t have happened without the grace of
hospitality, the open-hearted willingness to receive the need and soul of
another into one’s own heart.
They could have isolated themselves in their private pain as
so many do, protecting their hearts behind thick walls lest anyone see how
vulnerable they are. But they surrendered to the possibility that God’s magic
might happen if they opened themselves to receive the grace and pain of others.
They accepted what each other brought, receiving the flesh
of God, becoming truest children of God.
Christmas is about this kind of hospitality. God takes our
flesh into himself as Christ, the heart of God, puts on mortal flesh. Our need
and weakness is received into God in an ultimate act of hospitality. The life
of God and the need of our bodies and souls are folded into one, like hands in
prayer. Life and grace, blessing and need pass between us.
Hospitality is present throughout the Christmas story. Mary
and Joseph depend on the generosity of strangers as they traveled to Bethlehem. Mary gives
birth to Jesus in a cattle stall provided by someone who invited them inside.
In the ancient world, life depended on the hospitality of
others. Looking at Peggy and Michael, I see that it still does.
For prayer and
have you been blessed by the hospitality of others, or by your own acts of
keeps you from sharing yourself like Peggy and Michael?
might you show greater hospitality to others in your life during this season?
What child is this,
who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems
sweet while shepherds watch are keeping? This, this is Christ the king, whom
shepherds guard and angels sing; haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the
son of Mary!
(“What Child Is This,” William C. Dix, 16th
This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being an upright man and wanting to spare her disgrace, decided to divorce her informally. He had made up his mind to do this when suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.' Now all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: Look! The virgin is with child and will give birth to a son whom they will call Immanuel, a name which means 'God-is-with-us' (Matthew 1:18-24).
Do not fear. What you need will come, and you will know I am with you and always will be. I am Immanuel. I will come to save you in all your perils.
We have no way of knowing what ran through Joseph’s mind as he walked Mary to Bethlehem. But I hope words like these echoed in his depths as he made his way into an unknowable future.
Joseph is a lonely figure. He never speaks in Scripture. We never hear his voice or learn what is in his heart. Tradition suggests he was older than Mary, so much older that he may never have seen Jesus into adulthood.
He never gets much attention, even at Christmas.
With Mary at his side, he trekked over hills and through rocky valleys searching for places to rest and sleep, to eat and find the warmth of hospitality on the way to Bethlehem. Long hours of heavy silence hung between the two travelers, leaving Joseph too much alone with his thoughts:
“Can it be? Is this a child of God’s own spirit? Was the angel’s message real or a foolish stretch of my imagination because I need to believe Mary is true?
What will come next? How will it end? Can anything good come of this?”
And who could Joseph tell about his dream? Who would believe him or think him sane?”
Joseph is silent, alone with his thoughts. But he isn’t, of course.
Many travel this road. They live with haunting questions and fret over sick or troubled children. They doubt their judgment about decisions made and others yet to come. They wonder what will happen next to their families and lose sleep trying to find ways to fix their troubles.
Joseph’s sole comfort came from words in a dream to which he clung: “Do not fear. I am sending you Immanuel, God with us. Wait. Trust. Watch.
Immanuel will come, and you will know you are not alone and never will be.
For prayer & reflection
• What thoughts, feelings and memories were stirred by today’s reflection? • What questions plague you and make you wonder whether God is with you? • When have you experienced Immanuel, God with us? • What does the promise of Immanuel mean to you this year?
God of Adam, God of Joseph, God of sowing, soil and seed. Thank you for your world of promise: Milk and honey, wine and bread. Thank you for all men entrusted with the charge of fatherhood, and for those who have no children, yet are parents under God.
(“God of Adam, God of Joseph,” Fred Kaan, 1989)
[Gabriel] answered, 'The Holy
Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so
the child will be holy and will be called Son of God. And I
tell you this too: your cousin Elizabeth also,
in her old age, has conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now
in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God.' for nothing is
impossible to God.'Mary said, ‘Here I
am. The servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then
the angel departed from her (Luke 1:35-39).
The Christmas rush is on, too
much to do and too little time. But it is not just this season.
I have been in a hurry much
of my life, and I am not alone. We are driven by the awareness there that we
have too little time to do, see and accomplish what we want or think we should
I take on too much and
habitually underestimate the amount of time each new task requires. Completing
one job I speed to the next, which accounts for a number of traffic tickets
I’ve received, including one for a stop sign last week. I thought the red sign
was merely a suggestion.
But the longer I live the
more aware I am that life cannot be forced, love cannot be hurried and the human
heart requires time to know itself and the wonder of God. Spiritual depth and
truest life can’t be rushed but must be welcomed and received.
But it can only be received
by those who refuse to force the future, those who live Mary’s prayer, “Let it
be to me according to your word.”
So let us do what we can to
live and love, conforming our lives to our limits and knowing that what happens
today, in this place and time, in each of our lives, in this holy season, is
not entirely up to us.
More is happening than we can
know, so the humble and wise pray, “Let it be.”
A medieval painting of the
angel Gabriel greeting Mary is indelibly imprinted in my mind.
Gabriel bows before Mary not
daring to look at this thin slip of a girl, as he tells her the darkness of her
womb will bear the Soul of the Universe, the heart of the unimaginable God.
Mary bows from the waist,
too, facing Gabriel. Looking down in humility, her posture, matches the bent
body of the great angelic messenger. They are matching bookends, bowing before
the beauty and wonder of the other--and before the mystery that their lives are
not their own. Their stories belong to the story of God’s love for a broken
They bow, conforming to whatever
God requires of them in this great saga, little knowing what will come, what
they must do or the pain and joy each day may bring.
Their whole posture whispers quiet
faith, “Let it be,” a prayer we need every new morning.
For prayer and reflection
ideas and memories were stirred by today’s reflection?
·For what in your
life do you need to pray “Let it be?” What makes this payer hard for you?
·When and where
does the rush of this season prevent you from resting in God’s will and care?
·Do you have a
favorite or most meaningful picture of Mary or of the Christmas story?
“Let it Be” and in my hour of darkness she
is standing right in front of me.Speaking words of wisdom, Let it Be.And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me.Shine until tomorrow, Let it Be.
When all the people asked him, 'What
must we do, then?' he answered, 'Anyone who has two tunics must share with the
one who has none, and anyone with something to eat must do the same.' There
were tax collectors, too, who came for baptism, and these said to him, 'Master,
what must we do?' He said to them, 'Exact no more than the appointed rate' (Luke 3:10-14).
Gwen sent me an e-mail today.
She wants help buying two goats for her grandchildren.
The goats aren’t for them but
will go to a needy family to provide milk and presumably little goats to sell and
produce income. Gwen says her grandchildren love the idea that somewhere in the
world a family will receive two goats, given in their name.
I also hope they learn how to
see the way the way their grandmother sees. Gwen sees through God’s eyes.
She sees a world hungry for
the kingdom of God to come. And she bears a holy
instinct that knows God’s new world appears every time justice is done for the
needy, even if it looks as inconsequential as two small goats.
We live in a world where
children toil in sweat shops so we can buy cheap goods, a world where tens of thousands
perish of hunger every day, where most people must drink polluted water that
sickens and kills, a world where two goats can save the lives of children in an
Christ is born into this
world, not a world more perfect than the one we’ve got. He comes
to overturn the reign of
sorrow and death that casts its long shadow over human hearts and nations.
John the Baptist leaves
little doubt about how to get ready for this new world. Give your extra coat to
someone who needs it. Don’t oppress or take advantage. Don’t take more than
your share. Don’t be addicted to your wealth or way of life. Feed the hungry.
Spend less. Share more.
Keep your eyes on God’s
future, the one where compassion rules and justice covers the earth like the
waters cover the sea.
Then look at the world as
Gwen does, and become the warmth of Christ for which you hunger in this and
For prayer and reflection
What do you want Christ to turn upside down in
our world? In your life?
Who or what helps you see the injustice of this
How can you be involved in works of mercy, feeding
the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the poor, etc.?
What desire to serve or help others has been
awakened in you this season?
Long Lay the World in sin and error pining, “til he
appeared and the soul felt it’s worth. A thrill of hope the weary world
rejoices. As yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
cries, 'Prepare in the desert a
way for the Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the wastelands. Let
every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be leveled, every cliff
become a plateau, every escarpment a plain; then the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all
humanity will see it
together, for the mouth of the Lordhas
The Word became flesh,
he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that he has from the Father
as only Son of the Father, full of grace and
Abby cried into my robe on
Saturday. She pushed her wild head of blond hair into my side, and I wrapped
her in my robe to chase away her shame.
I don’t know what she
received, but she made my heart ready for Christmas morning.
It was her first time as
acolyte, and she was wired (as usual), eager to do everything right. But things
didn’t go right.
She lit the candles at the
Lord’s table, but the wick in the lighter wouldn’t retract far enough to
extinguish the flame. It grew longer and brighter, reaching perilously close to
her eyes and wispy bangs.
Her front-pew father was
quickly at her side and blew out the flame on the lighter. A teary Abby took
her place by me on the bench at the front of the church, weeping. I wrapped her
in the folds of my robe and held her, as she felt every eye in church on her.
This wasn’t how she planned
it. This precious girl, so alive with a lightening quick mind and a heart of
gold, wanted only to serve and smile. She wanted to feel the goodness of giving
herself to God and the people of our congregation, sharing what is in her.
Instead, her embarrassment
drew me to give what was in me. She awakened a love that wanted only to comfort
a child in danger of forgetting how precious and beautiful she is.
Abby and I shared a moment of
giving and receiving the love who holds us both.
It was still November, but Christmas
had come. The love of God took flesh in both of us, and we felt its glory.
Readiness to love and receive
the love of God wherever it appears is truest preparedness for Christmas. For
we never quite know when Christ might come.
Sometimes he comes humble in
a manger, and sometimes in little blond-haired girls.
Come, Lord Jesus, and let us
receive that love which holds us and all things.
For prayer & reflection
What keeps you from receiving and giving love to
Is there someone you might reach out to this year
with a special phone call or a letter, a lost friend, someone you have not
told what they mean to you?
What practices help you prepare the way of the
Lord, opening you to receive and share Christ and his love? Does listening
to music help? Solitude and quiet? Meditating or praying for others?
Serving in a food pantry and helping others?
To us, to all in sorrow and fear, Emmanuel comes a
singing. His humble song is quiet and near, yet fills the earth with its
ringing. Love be our song, and love our prayer, and love our endless story. May
God fill every day we share, and bring us at last into glory!
(“Awake, Awake and Greet the
New Morn,” Marty Haugen, 1983)