Archive for December, 2021


Written by Bill Sytsma, a contemporary pastor and author.

I don’t blame people for missing what happened in the small town of Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. Who would have thought that the Lord of heaven and earth would come into the world as a child born in a stable? We are about to close the book on 2021. Today you might find yourself remembering some of the triumphs and trials of the past year. Even if you have had some wonderful successes in the past twelve months, you can probably remember some low points as well.

As you enter a new year, I hope you can remember that God’s plans have always been to prosper his people. He can transform ordinary events and difficult trials into key moments that help his plans to prosper. He is not out to harm us, but the dark moments we experience can be part of the most important lessons to help us grow nearer to him. God has a way of saving his world that we may find hard to understand. He introduced his Son into the world and brought about our salvation in a way that could easily be overlooked—and yet he has changed the world, and his kingdom keeps growing. That same God comes into our lives and draws us into his plans for a hope-filled future!

SCRIPTURE: Jeremiah 29:1-13


Performed by Pentatonix

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Adapted from a writing by Anne Arabome, a contemporary nun.

What qualified Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to be called holy? Each one possessed a unique identity, but together they experienced God’s eruption into their lives. God’s eruption into their lives was disruptive. It required an unqualified and absolute acceptance. Mary responded with complete availability, serenity, and trust. She said, “Yes,” not knowing what the future held. She trusted in God’s promise… Joseph embraced God’s will as “the father in the shadows”—as Francis describes him in Patris Corde—who exemplifies the love, courage, creativity, tenderness, acceptance, and hard work of a beloved father for his family. Likewise, Jesus’ response to God was firm, albeit progressing through moments of temptation to completely abandon God’s will. Opening their hearts to God interrupted and changed the course of their lives radically. Mary became a contemplative at heart. Joseph became deeply attuned to the silence within. And Jesus incarnated the presence of the compassionate God-with-us. Yet heeding God’s will wasn’t an easy path for the holy family. Mary and Joseph gradually embraced their understanding of their roles as parents. There were moments of anxiety, like when they lost Jesus among the crowd; there were times of perceived rejection when Jesus seemingly relativized their role in his mission, and even outright rebellion: “Didn’t you know that I have to be about my father’s business?” Eventually, Mary would witness the horrific murder of her son. Those moments revealed the conviction of Mary and Joseph that theirs was a journey of faith, hope, and love. Like many parents, they remained committed to their parenting vocation, celebrating its joys and hopes, embracing its pain and anxiety. Their example of holiness isn’t ethereal; it is borne of their interior freedom and radical commitment to their roles as parents even in the face of difficulties and challenges. They didn’t have all the answers. The Feast of the Holy Family offers an opportunity to reflect on our call to holiness. Holiness is a path for each person to discover, not a portrait to be copied and imitated sheepishly. The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts”

SCRIPTURE: Colossians 3:12-21

MUSIC VIDEO: Mary and Joseph’s Song

Performed by Marcia Boland

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Written by Ray Fowler, a contemporary pastor and author.

God’s purpose for the Star of Bethlehem was simply to point the Magi to Christ. God used the star to catch the Magi’s attention and bring them to Jerusalem. It was there that they received a fuller revelation of Christ from God’s Word, when the teachers of the law opened the Scriptures and pointed them to Bethlehem as the place of Christ’s birth.  And then the star went on ahead of them to Bethlehem until it stopped over the place where Christ was…It had pointed them to Christ. I would maintain that this is still God’s purpose for the star today. God doesn’t want us to get all hung up on the various attempts at explaining the star away or trying to figure it all out. Just as the purpose of a reading lamp is to shed light on the book you are reading, or the purpose of a spotlight is to highlight the person on the stage, so the purpose of the star is to point us to Christ. And we should let the star do just that.

Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies. He is the ruler who came out of Israel. The obedience of the nations belongs to him. He is the Christ. It’s interesting, the gospel of Matthew begins with foreigners from a distant nation coming to worship Christ. And the gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus’ commission to the church to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus is not only the King of the Jews. He is the only Savior for the world. And so the star also has a missionary thrust. It is a reminder to us that we are to share the good news of Jesus with everyone, everywhere we can, both here where we live, and around the world. We are to make disciples of all nations as we point them to Jesus. So, every time you see a star this Christmas, think about Jesus. When you see the star on your tree this Christmas, remember Jesus. When you hear Christmas carols referencing the star, worship and celebrate Jesus. And when you think about the star and how it led the Magi to Christ, ask God, “With whom would you have me share the good news of Jesus this Christmas?” You see, Jesus is the real “star” of Bethlehem. He is the star attraction. He is center stage. He was the motivation for the Magi’s journey and the reason for their rejoicing. He is the reason for our celebration of Christmas today. The babe in the manger is the centerpiece of every nativity scene. Jesus is the reason for the season. The purpose of the star is to point us to Christ.

SCRIPTURE: Matthew 2:9-10

MUSIC VIDEO: Beautiful Star of Bethlehem

Performed by Home Free, The Oakridge Boys, and Jeffrey East

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Written by Steve Grunow, a contemporary priest and CEO of Word on Fire Ministries.

The Gospel of Matthew is the only existing historical reference that mentions the massacre of the children of Bethlehem. It seems to have passed under the radar of historical concerns. This is not difficult to understand when we consider that the common people of Bethlehem did not merit much attention at all in a world controlled by the likes of Herod or Caesar. As such, their indignities and sufferings would not matter all that much to the historians of the time. Matthew tells us that Herod was seized by fear at rumors of a child born in Bethlehem that was the promised Messiah. If these rumors were true, such a revelation meant the end of Herod and his dynasty. Unable to discover the identity of this child, he ordered all the young children in the region around Bethlehem to be killed. We would probably rather not have the memory of such a terrible event interrupt our feelings of Christmas cheer, but the Church insists that we look at the total event of Christ’s coming into the world, and the death of these innocent children is not an incidental part of the story of the Incarnation.

Shadows lurked beneath the light of the star of Bethlehem. Sister Wendy Becket, in one of her reflections, begs us to consider the disturbing irony in all this. The Lord Jesus, who is to end his life by dying for others, begins his life with others dying because of him. His safety is assured, but his own mother’s happiness is preserved amidst the misery of others. We must always remember that the Holy Family begins their mission in exile, as refugees. The world in which they lived was not a safe or easy place. God accepting for himself a human nature made him vulnerable to all the trials and tribulations of life. Christ did this with full awareness of what it would all mean and what it would affect. He would have to accept not only the joy and glory of being human but our sorrow and sufferings as well. If we are looking for a spiritual lesson in all of this, it might be for us to understand that though we are overjoyed as Christians at the coming of Christ, many people do not share our sense of elation.  Cruel King Herod represents all the powers that stand against Christ. These powers are not just outside ourselves; they lurk within us all. There are parts of ourselves that want nothing to do with Christ and jealously guard their independence from any incursion of his will. The Gospel of John reminds us of this truth in the proclamation that the Lord “came to what was his own, but his own did not accept him.” This is not meant simply as a reference to those who, like Herod, refused the Lord centuries ago; it is meant for all of us to carefully consider. What aspects of our own lives and the lives of others are we ready to destroy because of our refusal of Christ? The story of Herod is meant as a warning to us in this regard.

SCRIPTURE: Matthew 2:16-18

MUSIC VIDEO: Salvete Flores Martyrum

Performed by Collegium Instrumentale Brugense

Feast of the Holy Innocents painted by Fr. Warner D’Souza of Bombay, India

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Written by Esau McCaulley, a contemporary pastor, professor, author, speaker, and public theologian.

December 26th, we remembered the first martyr, Stephen. December 27th, we remember John the Evangelist. According to tradition, he is the only one of the twelve apostles who did not suffer martyrdom (We pass over the end of Judas in silence)…John and Stephen speak to different aspects of the Christian experience. Some are called to the dramatic acts of faithfulness that forever mark their lives. Stephen is remembered for one speech. John, by contrast, is a witness to the long life of faithfulness. He was one of the first to follow Jesus. Later, after many of his friends and family had died, John lingered. I thought of this as I gave communion to a mostly older gathering this morning. The elderly amongst us are not signs of the church’s failure. They are witnesses to its success. The faith that began its work in them as children has sustained them as they near its consummation. John is not just an example of elderly faith. He accomplished something that few other Christian theologians have done. He articulated the beginning and end of the Christian story in a way that remains unmatched. It is the cold heart that is not stirred by the opening chapter of John’s gospel. He gets Christmas! God’s word has come among us. The light shines in the darkness.   But John also understands the church’s end: As John looked to the future of the church [in Revelation] he saw the worship of all tribes, peoples, and nations before the throne of the lamb. John brings gospel-based diversity to the heart of Christmas. Christmas, through the eyes of John, declares Jesus to be the redeemer of all mankind. It reminds the church that as long as we remain estranged from any of our brothers and sisters from other races, we fall far short of the purpose of the incarnation. God in Christ came to reconcile all to God and one another. This is the fruit of Christmas. John the Apostle and Evangelist bears witness to it.


MUSIC VIDEO: Light of the World

Performed by Lauren Daigle

Statue of the Apostle John by Donatello

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Reflection on Saint Stephen


Written by Karen Schultz, a contemporary author.

If I had to wager a guess, I’m going to presume that I’ll spend these first days of Christmas basking in all that is good in these holy days—the quiet peace of midnight Mass; the gentle joy that comes from taking in the sights of the Nativity at my local church; the flurry of presents being opened by starry-eyed little ones; and the fullness of meals shared with dear friends and family. There is so much that is good in my life this Christmas. I also know that at least a portion of these holy days will be spent reflecting on the imperfections of the season. Things like the physical absence of loved ones and the spiritual absence of relatives far from the Church. Things like the heartache of family misunderstandings that always feel more keen this time of year. Things like the longing that comes from prayers that simply weren’t answered on Christmas morning. I have to remind myself that even though Christmas is a beautiful time, it’s also a far-from-perfect time.

Every Christmas I also marvel at the Church’s wisdom to place Stephen at the very start of Christmastide. How fitting that the story of the first Christian martyr be told right in the beauty and messiness of the Christmas story! The Scriptures tell us that Stephen loved our Lord and King with a heart that was “filled with grace and power” (Acts 6:8). He had the joy of the Lord in his heart, even as he endured misunderstanding, abuse, and ultimately, death. You see, love for our newborn King didn’t mean that Saint Stephen was free from the sorrows of the human experience. But it did mean that he would go to the ends of all the messiness for the sake of the One Who came to us yesterday in a manger. I want a heart like Stephen’s, and I’m praying for that today for me and for you.


MUSIC VIDEO: Good King Wenceslas

Performed by Michala Petri, recorder and Danish National Vocal Ensemble

Saint Stephen Statue on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

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Reflection on God Incarnate


Written by Mark Roberts, a contemporary author.

The prologue of John’s Gospel tells the essential story of Christmas but not in the usual manner. John doesn’t give us angels and shepherds or wise men and a star. We don’t even have a babe born in a stable and laid in a manger. Rather, John reveals the theological essence of Christmas. And what is this theological core? It begins with the Word of God, the living Logos who was with God in creation. This eternal, divine Word “became human” (v. 14). That’s a valid rendering of the original Greek, which states literally that the Word (logos) became flesh (sarx). The Word of God didn’t just look like a human being. He didn’t just appear among us in some mysterious, other-worldly form. Rather, he became one of us, flesh and all.

Here is the wonder of the Incarnation, the in-flesh-ment of the divine Word. For centuries, theologians have sought to explain this mystery, but their efforts only take us so far. We’ll never fully comprehend how an infinite God could take on finite flesh, how an all-powerful God could become a weak, vulnerable baby. Yet this truth is absolutely central, not only to Christmas but also to Christian theology and Christian living. We must beware of the tendency to deny the full humanity of Jesus, even as we also boldly affirm his full deity. In fact, one of the oldest heresies claimed that Jesus was divine but not really human. Though most of us wouldn’t agree with this theology, we may have never taken time to reflect upon the implications of the Incarnation for our faith and life as Christians. In the next few days, I want to explore some of these implications with you. We will keep Christmas well when we focus on the fact of the Incarnation, something we can affirm without ever plumbing its depths. In Jesus, God became human. In Jesus, the all-powerful Word became weak and vulnerable. In Jesus, God reached out to us in a costly, humble, and fully incarnational way. The more we keep this truth in mind, the more we will be able to honor Christmas in all that we think and do.

SCRIPTURE: John 1:14-18

MUSIC VIDEO: What Child is This

Performed by Andrea Bocelli and Mary J. Bilge

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Written by Irene Dickson.

The birthplace of Jesus is often visually depicted very elaborately, particularly in Renaissance art, with bright colors, rich textures, angels, and kings surrounding the manger in the stable where our Lord was born. When I think of the manger, I think of the simplicity. Two young parents with a tiny baby, trying to figure it all out, like most young parents do. This photo of a humble manger scene carved out of acacia wood, reminds me of my years growing up in Africa. In my parents’ house, we had many hand-carved wooden animals and other African artifacts. I wonder if the local African craftsmen knew of Jesus when they carved these nativity pieces. When I think about the scene at Jesus’ birth, the words of a favorite hymn keep playing in my head ‘Jesus was born in a stable, there was no room at the Inn, He had a stall for a cradle … and that was good enough Him’. We see in the stores that the shelves are empty due to ‘supply chain issues!” Yet another Christmas unlike most in the past. But surely, as we are able to gather this Christmas, attend worship in our Church, and all the wonderful Advent events, we all feel that we don’t need extravagant gifts- being with family and friends is ‘good enough’.

SCRIPTURE: 1 John 4:10

MUSIC VIDEO: Jesus Was Born in a Stable

Performed by Robert Sund

From the Dickson Family Nativity Collection

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Reflection on the Manger


Written by Skip Heitzig, a contemporary American pastor.rs of Christmas.”

A few years ago, my mom gave me the Nativity scene that was in our house when I was a kid. It evoked wonder in my early years, and it’s still wonderful, but there’s something not quite right about it. For one thing, the figure of Jesus looks more like a two-year-old than an infant. For another, He has blond hair and blue eyes—and from what I know of the Middle East, I have kind of a problem with that. Obviously, this Nativity set was crafted by a European! And the manger is made out of wood. Of course, that’s how most of us think of it. But the word in the Bible translated “manger” could mean either a feeding trough or an enclosure for animals. In that part of the world animals were kept in caves, and feeding troughs were made out of stone, so Jesus was probably born in a cave around Bethlehem somewhere and laid in a stone trough. Now, I know I’ve probably destroyed a lot of your mental pictures of Jesus’ birth. But the important question is “Why a manger?” Why wasn’t He born in a palace, and His birth heralded in the Jerusalem Post? The answer is in two words, humility, and accessibility. His mother wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, like any peasant of the time. This great gift came in simple wrapping. The one who would be called “Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father”—the Creator—became an embryo, and then a baby. It’s amazing, and the more you think about it, the more staggering it becomes. This humility would depict His entire life and ministry. And when He died, He was buried in a borrowed grave, another cave similar to the one He was born in. Because He was humble, He was accessible. Going into a throne room to see a king would be intimidating, but there’s nothing intimidating about going into a cave and approaching a feeding trough. You don’t need special credentials; you don’t need to have to have an appointment. The shepherds could just come in. And again, this marked not only His birth but His entire life…So it’s not really important what your Nativity scene looks like. The important thing is what you think about the Child who was laid in that manger. In the words of an old Christmas carol, “Infant holy, infant lowly, for his bed a cattle stall; oxen lowing, little knowing, Christ the babe is Lord of all.”

SCRIPTURE: Luke 2:16

MUSIC VIDEO: Infant Holy, Infant Lowly

Performed by King’s College, Cambridge Choir

Every year the town of Rute in southern Spain constructs a nativity scene made entirely of 1,000kg chocolate making it the biggest chocolate nativity scene in Spain.

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Written by Sheryl Dawson, a contemporary author.k “The Characters of Christmas.”

Christmas is a favorite time for us all to give and receive gifts. Forty five percent of consumer merchandise is sold during the Christmas season. When we buy at Christmas, we spend big dollars on clothes, electronics, jewelry and a vast array of personal items. Our intentions are generous as we seek to please our family and friends with material gifts we believe they will enjoy and appreciate… But all of these gifts and their wrappings pale in the light of the greatest gift of all times, a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes. Over two thousand years ago, Jesus was born as God’s gift to all mankind…Jesus fulfilled over 300 prophecies in his birth and life and death and resurrection! God’s gift was carefully planned, immaculately conceived, meticulously prepared, and miraculously delivered! … Jesus, the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, was the gift of grace, salvation freely given. No strings or ribbons attached. No qualifications or requirements demanded. No exclusions or returns dictated. Grace… undeserved, unencumbered, unbelievable! This was the heart of the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. All one need do to receive this gift of grace is to accept it. Simple. A gift that will last not a year, not a decade, not merely our earthly lifetime, but will last for eternity. Our relationship with Jesus is for the here and now as He resides in our hearts, and for eternity when we shall pass from this earth-bound body to eternal existence with Him in the spirit. This is truly a gift of peace, of joy, of hope. Jesus reinstated all the privileges of the original Garden-of-Eden relationship between God and Adam and Eve. Through Jesus, we can commune with God — seek His face, walk with Him, and talk with Him. This incredible gift simply accepted brings peace where there is dissension, joy where there is depression, and hope where there is despair. Grace, like the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, is a gift given in humility. With like humility, a gift simply received. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the activity and glitter and festivity of the season that we miss the simplicity yet profoundness of the original Christmas story. As you prepare your carefully selected gifts for Christmas this year, consider the greatest gift of all. Have you received the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes — the gift of grace? If so, take time this season to praise Him for his matchless gift and share it with another. If not, take time to consider the value of this precious gift. All the gifts ever given around the world, are merely chaff blown by the winds of time when balanced against the eternal weight of salvation by grace. Accept the priceless gift wrapped in swaddling clothes this Christmas and receive abundant and eternal peace, joy, and hope.


MUSIC VIDEO: A King in Swaddling Clothes

Performed by Hal Leonard and the Shawnee Press Church Chorale

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