‘I can no longer read the story without experiencing the presence of that love’
BY JOANN NESSER
Christmas has never been my favorite time of year. I’ve always experienced conflict between the zillions of things that I had to do and the “silent night” of the shepherds.It’s also hard for me to flip the emotional switch to move from the routine of ordinary time to wait expectantly for the Christ child.
As a young wife and mother I felt put upon to do Christmas — shopping for our children and large families; baking extravagant goodies; sending Christmas cards to friends, relatives, acquaintances and business associates; decorating and entertaining; and going to parties, concerts and programs at school and church.
I taught Sunday school, sat in the nursery, sang in the choir and worked with the women’s group. These all escalated during the Christmas season. The result: Christmas wasn’t meaningful for me. I couldn’t wait for January.
I tried to simplify. I cut our long card list. I made only a few favorite cookies and kept home decorations basic. I said “no” to things I really didn’t want to do, and we fashioned family traditions that were truly our own, not merely what was expected.
This slowed the pace and reduced stress. But it didn’t deal with my most important questions: Why do we celebrate anyway? What is it really all about?
My Christmas questions were part of larger questions such as, “Who is Jesus Christ?” and “How can I enter into a more meaningful relationship with him?”
I began to find answers when I went on retreat and learned how to pray with the Scriptures. I learned to listen to God — to meditate with Scripture and be quiet enough to notice the intuitive knowledge that God’s Spirit speaks deep within our souls. And I learned that spiritual life has more to do with what God is doing than with what I’m doing.
Learning to pray
As I quieted down inside and listened to God, I began to approach Christmas differently. I asked different questions. I thought about the shepherds entering Bethlehem, searching for the baby who was the savior of the world.
“How did they know that this was the Christ child?” I wondered. “What was it about this baby that made them know who he was?” I opened my Bible and read the text in the manner I had learned while on a retreat, slowly and reflectively, listening with my heart and trying to enter the passage with my imagination.
“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” ( Luke 2:15-20).
I tried to imagine what the scene looked like: the barn, the warmth of the animals, the smell of the hay. I imagined the little family in their poverty, having their baby in a barn.
Entering the scene in my imagination, the story took on a life of its own. Mary lifted the baby out of the manger and handed him to me. I gathered the baby in my arms and was flooded with love and warmth. I sat in silence, bathed in this love, and came to understand how the shepherds may have known that this was the Christ child.
I can no longer read the Christmas texts without experiencing the presence of that love, which has become a more powerful part of my life.
Scripture meditation takes us to surprising places as the Spirit gives us truths that deepen our spiritual lives. This is why it’s a practice that earnest seekers of God have used across many centuries.
Setting aside time for silence and solitude to meditate on seasonal Scripture texts will allow you to receive God’s great gift to you at all times — including Advent and Christmas. It also will free you to enjoy celebrations of feasting and gift-giving while keeping you focused on the deep meaning of the season.
Here’s a way to meditate with Scripture that will help you welcome Christ into your life in a fresh way.
- Choose a Scripture passage before your quiet time. You may use suggestions from a devotional book, from the church year or choose your own.
- Begin by sitting in a comfortable position. Take a few deep breaths. Imagine breathing in the Spirit and breathing out the busyness and tension of daily life.
- Thank God for being present with you.
- As you feel “centered,” read the Scripture passage slowly, one phrase at a time. Don’t try to “get something out of it”; simply offer it as a prayer. Repeat each phrase as often as it seems to have life. Then pause and listen before moving to the next phrase. If it is a story text, imagine yourself in the narration, using your imaginary senses of smell, touch, hearing, seeing. Pay attention to who you are in the text. How are you responding to what is happening? What do you want to do or say?
- When you sense that God is touching you through a phrase or word, stay with it as long as you like. Sometimes God will touch you so deeply that you move readily into a prayer of response. If so, let the rest of the text go and follow where the Spirit leads. God is the initiator. We are giving God this time to speak to our hearts, guide us, heal us and bring us into loving knowledge of the Trinity.
- As your meditation time ends, respond in prayer in whatever way is appropriate to what happened or didn’t happen. Close the time with praise and thanksgiving.
Be gentle with yourself. A relationship with God is a growing experience. Some days one feels close to God, other days distant. Don’t worry about these fluctuating feelings. Christ lives within us. God is always healing, renewing, creating and deepening us whether we feel it or not.
Sometimes the greatest gift of our reflection time, especially during Christmas, is the silence.