Finding Meaning in Christmas
I had the opportunity this year to compile much of the narration of what was used in our ward’s sacrament meeting Christmas program. It was easier to do this year than it has been others. I have found that Christmas has found a different place in my heart than in the past. Sure, I’ve always enjoyed giving more than receiving, and remember the real meaning of Christmas, which is found not in Santa and his sleigh, but in the birth of the Christchild. Both are found by looking inward and heavenward, but only one of those endures after December 26 and throughout the year.
I’ve been unable to pinpoint exactly what’s made the difference in my own heart this year. It’s likely a combination of spiritual growth and maturity over the past several years, as well as being removed from the commercialism of Christmas. (I cut the TV cable three years ago, so am not inundated by every Christmas ad under the sun, urging me that the one way to show my loved ones how I feel about them is by spending exorbitant amounts of money.)
Writing the program was easy this year, as I pondered what the different Christmas symbols mean on a personal level. More than the Christmas story, I believe there is application in many of the main characters and symbols. Here are just a few things I thought of, and I’m sure there are more.
The Star of Bethlehem and Signs in the Heavens
It was the prophet Samuel, who was a Lamanite, who prophesied about the great signs and wonders that would accompany the baby Messiah’s birth.
And behold, this will I give unto you for a sign at the time of his coming; for behold, there shall be great lights in heaven, insomuch that in the night before he cometh there shall be no darkness, insomuch that it shall appear unto man as if it was day.
And behold, there shall a new star arise, such an one as ye never have beheld; and this also shall be a sign unto you.
And behold this is not all, there shall be many signs and wonders in heaven.
And it shall come to pass that ye shall all be amazed, and wonder, insomuch that ye shall fall to the earth.
And it shall come to pass that whosoever shall believe on the Son of God, the same shall have everlasting life. (Helaman 14:3-8)
Wondrous signs were given of the Christ child’s birth. The very heavens rejoiced at the mortal birth of their Creator. “And it came to pass also that a new star did appear, according to the word” (3 Ne. 1:21). Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Balaam had said in a dual prophecy, “There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (Num. 24:17), foretelling both the star and the birth of the messianic king.
“And it came to pass also that a new star did appear, according to the word.” (3 Nephi 1:13-14, 21)
The signs in the heaven were given to testify of his birth, and our own lives can be just like those shining stars, that help light the way for others to find the Messiah prophesied of for centuries.
Bethlehem, the city of David, was the place foretold where the King of the Jews and Redeemer of mankind would be born. Like that infant king, the city itself was nothing remarkable. The city where He was born mirrors the state of His heart, and, if we listen carefully, can become a symbol of the types of attributes Jesus would have us become: meek and humble.
There was no room for Him at the inns of Bethlehem, but we can prepare our own hearts to receive the Savior of the world. “Let every heart prepare him room,” we sing at Christmastime. “The Christmas season seems to be an appropriate time to contemplate how healthy our hearts are spiritually.” It is a time to choose to “monitor and strengthen our spiritual hearts…” It is a time “to choose to do something that expresses, in an outward way, our inward feelings about the Savior Jesus Christ.” (Gary E. Stevenson, Christmas Devotional, 2018.)
Witnesses of His Birth
The witnesses to the Christ child’s birth – his earthly parents Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the angels, and the wise men – are all of us. They were the first to bear witness of his miraculous birth in humble circumstances. And we are his witnesses now of his greatness and mercy – of his redeeming power.
After centuries of waiting and anticipating, the hope and salvation of all mankind lay in a humble stall filled with hay. Born in a stable and cradled in a manger, our Savior, Creator and Redeemer “came forth from heaven to live on earth as mortal man and to establish the kingdom of God.” (Thomas S. Monson, Ensign, December 1987.)
“Our Heavenly Father …sees us, His little children, trying our best. Our efforts don’t always succeed, but He knows how hard we are working—sometimes gritting our teeth and plunking through a disaster—and He loves us for it. For all of our dissonant, out of tune, unrecognizable efforts and deeds, He sent His beautiful Only Begotten Son, who is love’s pure light. Jesus Christ will repair every bad note, redeem every sour overtone, and repair every wrong if we turn to Him and ask for His help. Because of the birth, the Atonement, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can all ‘sleep in heavenly peace.’” (Sharon Eubank, Christmas Devotional 2018.)
There is something about the image of a helpless baby that resonates with all of us, I think. And it may be the thing that makes Christmas such a universal feeling, even if not everyone identifies as a Christian. Just as all babies do, this one grew up through toddlerhood, childhood, his teens, young adulthood, and eventually full maturity.
Our own conversion stories are like that, too. That little seed of faith and testimony is just like a baby. It starts off small in our hearts, then grows, taking root and getting stronger, until it reaches full maturity. It’s what makes it so easy to relate to the Baby Jesus, because a baby is innocent, with no ulterior motives other than to be nourished and cared for.
As He grows and we study His life, the hope and joy of His mission finds room in our own hearts, nourishing and sustaining our faith and spirits. Jesus may have once been a baby, but that’s not the purpose of Christmas.
The purpose of revering that long ago babe in the manger is to remember that the child grew to manhood, becoming our Savior and Redeemer. The hope of the world at one point lay in a manger as a baby, but now He lives in our hearts, and is manifest in our own lives.
Sure, there’s lots of modern-day discussion around the actual circumstances of Jesus’ birth. What was the inn really? Was it a place where people paid to stay, or was it part of the caravan that Mary and Joseph sure traveled in? Was there really a stable? I’m not a linguist, nor a historian, so this isn’t an attempt to answer any of those questions. Tradition has it that Jesus was laid in a manger, and even if we’ve romanticized that in our modern eyes, that’s the version I’m going with for now.
It is no coincidence that Jesus was born into a temporary situation. His earthly parents were traveling, and spent at least the first two years of his life traveling between Jerusalem and Egypt. We know that they eventually settled in Nazareth, but generally this was a man who maybe knew little about the stability of one address.
Well into His ministry He said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).
I have felt like this for much of my adult life. I’ve “been on my own” since shortly after my mission, and while I spent many of those years with one roommate or another, the lack of “home” is one that I know well. My own family loves me, and I them, but they all have their own families now. I’ve made my own family as I’ve gone, even if it doesn’t look like the traditional family. It’s comprised of good friends who are more like siblings than passing friends. I have friends who let me mother their children, which helps fill some emotional needs. I surround myself with good people who love me.
And yet…and yet.
It feels sometimes as though something is lacking – a sense of permanence, or a sense of belonging. And invitation to someone’s house for Christmas is not the same as belonging, and sometimes the ache of loneliness looms large.
The joy I have felt this Christmas season has been accompanied by a desire to belong, somewhere or to someone. This is not a Christmas wish that will be granted with a visit from Santa, but is a lifelong yearning. It strikes us all in different times, places, and circumstances. Perhaps someone is going through a divorce and feels a little lost and unmoored at navigating that stormy sea. There is probably someone you know who comes to church with her husband and family, yet suffers behind closed doors from emotional isolation in her marriage.
Loneliness doesn’t always look like the single, childless person. It comes in many sizes, shapes, and nearly every circumstance.
There is comfort to me in knowing that Jesus was born to parents who maybe didn’t know where they were going to lodge next week, or what awaited them in Egypt, or if Nazareth would still welcome them. It comforts me to know that He, too, desired to belong.
Christmas time is all about gifts, as demonstrated by God Himself who “… so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). “And if you keep my commandments and endure to the end, you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (D&C 14:7).
“Desire is important in this season of gift giving, when we are particularly mindful of the desires of those whom we love. What are your deepest desires? What do you really want to experience and accomplish in this life? Do you really want to become more and more like Jesus Christ? Do you really want to live with Heavenly Father and with your family forever and live as He lives?
“If you do, you will want to accept many gifts offered by the Lord.” One of the gifts that Jesus Christ gives to those who are willing to receive it is “an unlimited capacity to love.
“With the Savior’s help, we can learn to love as He loved. It may require a change of heart—most certainly a softening of our hearts—as we are tutored by the Savior how to really take care of each other. My dear brothers and sisters, we can truly minister in the Lord’s way as we accept His gift of love.” (Russell M. Nelson, Christmas Devotional 2018.)
And that is the gift of Christmas: the gift of love. From small babe in swaddling clothes to the resurrected redeemer, let us all prepare our hearts to receive Him, the Holy Messiah.