I wished he’d called for Papa instead. Because Mama was nestled, all snuggled in bed. The heat was turned low and she didn’t want to go.
After a week of late nights, I’d set this Christmas Eve to be my long winter’s sleep.
Mama, please come, he cried again. I rolled over. It was 1:04 a.m. I’d knelt beside his bed at 9 p.m., rubbed his head at 10, and given meds at 11. After which I finished wrapping the gifts—yes, I am that mom—arranged them under the tree, then settled myself in bed.
But I couldn’t ignore his pitiful cry.
So This Is Christmas
Coming, I called with a sigh.
So this is Christmas. I thought as I lay in the dark, groping about for glasses and socks. I forced myself out of my snuggly, warm bed and stumbled shivering toward my son’s groans.
Then it hit me—this is Christmas. Rolling out of a warm bed to help a sick child is closer to the “real meaning of Christmas” than cozy and comfy and Silent Night by candlelight.
The creed says, “For us and for our salvation he came down.” The King of the Universe condescended. Almighty God came down.
Love Came Down
Paul told the Philippians, Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
I crawled out of my warm bed to care for a sick, pitiful child. The Son of left the glories of heaven and the warmth of his Father’s side to care for his sin-sick, pitiful children. For our sake, God the Son left heaven for sick, cold earth.
I love how C.S. Lewis explains that.
The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.
A Measure Of Love
Leaving aside our comfort for the sake of others is one measure of love.
Jesus Christ came out of heaven’s bright glory and was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, “because there was no place…in the inn.” My Bible footnote on Luke 2:7 says that he could have been born in a stable or cave, but since mangers were often outdoors, “it’s possible that Jesus was born in the open air.”
Open air or stable or cave—they all sound uncomfortable and cold.
Love is spelled T-I-M-E but that’s not the only way to sound love out. It’s also spelled I-N-I-T-I-A-T-E. Initiate.
1. Great Lovers Initiate
We love because he first loved us. 1 John 4:19
Initiate. There’s not much zing to this 4-syllable, 8-letter ‘i’ word. Love is spelled time has a better ring.
Don’t get me wrong. Love is spelled time. But sometimes we get it best and feel it most when love comes in other languages like gifts or touch or kind words or service. Love is spelled a lot of ways.
But great lovers initiate. They forgive first and confess first. They invite you before you invite them.
Great lovers take the lead.
When Love Goes First
If you remember your brother has something against you, leave your gift at the altar. First go be reconciled. Matthew 5:23b-24
This is a very hard thing. It takes supernatural strength and superhuman love to go to an offended brother or sister and initiate peace.
First, be reconciled. Go to her. Don’t wait for her to come to you. Initiate.
The best lovers go first to make peace.
I know this because Love came down at Christmas. For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). God sent. He went first to seek peace, to bring life.
Because of his great love, God being rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ when we were dead in our trespasses (Ephesians 2:4). That is the only place in the New Testament when God’s love is called great love.
Great love brings life. Eternal life is peace with God. Great lovers seek peace. He loved us to life when there was nothing lovable in us. We were dead.
So the Great Lover took the lead and made dry bones live and stone hearts soft as flesh.
Because the best lovers don’t wait. They peace make. They initiate.
2. Great Lovers Risk Rejection
He came to his own and his own received him not. John 1:11
I can barely face the risk of my own favorite books being unloved, rejected. If you don’t like this book, would you please give it back? I’ll find you a better one.
One year, I actually did jot that note and slap it on the front of the book. Talk about tacky.
But I fear bigger rejections too. I fear the rejection of my invites, children, writing, ideas, and efforts. I grow weary of going first. Confessing first and forgiving first, clearing awkward air and making peace are risky. They’re all rife with the risk of rejection. And there’s a real chance we’ll be misunderstood.
Jesus faced rejection. The Man of Sorrows was despised and rejected by men (Isaiah 53:3). His great love would be misunderstood and spurned.
But for Love Himself, it was beyond risk. In sure and certain omniscience, he knew some would not receive his gift.
He knew some would reject His love. His life. Him.
Follow Love’s Lead
And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:2
You’re invited! Aren’t those about two of the most happy-making words ever? It was only November 13th and there it was. An Evite Invite to the Greene’s New Year’s Eve party. Their early invite showed love.
I got it covered!Or how about when your husband not only cleared his schedule, made the reservation, but also arranged childcare so he could take you away for a night? His initiative spelled love.
Want to walk in an hour? Christin texted me to ask for a walk before I asked her. It’s risky to invite because you might be rejected. What if I already had another walking date? Her text expressed love.
These are little risks. We can only love like this because he first loved us.
But he did love us first. So we can follow his lead.
Know This Love
God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who he has given us…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:5, 8
Initiate and risk rejection for God’s sake.
That’s what’s ringing in these ears this Christmastime. It’s two sides of love I hadn’t much seen. Maybe I’m feeling it now as I ache for someone to initiate, to invite, to take a chance on me.
Then I remember.
A Great Lover did.
Come; see the place where the young child lay. Look at the manger: there is Lamb for the burnt-offering,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
These little tender hands shall yet be torn. These feet that have not yet trod this rough earth shall be nailed to the tree. That side shall yet be pierced by a Roman spear; that back shall be scourged; that cheek shall be buffeted and spat upon; that brow shall be crowned with thorns—and all for sinners!
Is this not love? Is it not the great love of God?
In 1948, C.S. Lewis published a poem called, “The Turn of the Tide.” In it, he imagines the cosmic significance of Christ’s birth.
Rest assured, the tide has turned. It might not feel like it, but feelings lie. Oh sure, we’re still in these long last days and I’m still one of the poor orn’ry people—but about 2020 years ago the tide turned.
It was never intended to stay there. In fact, it reached the highest heavens. Breathless was the air over Bethlehem. When the Virgin gave birth to a son the galaxies tingled and rocked.
But it also reached the lowest shepherds keeping watch over their flocks that night and it penetrates into our little house in some big Wisconsin woods in these Covid-19 days.
The Turn of the Tide
I read the poem aloud to three teenage boys in that little house this afternoon. At least two out of three at half-listened. I hope you enjoy it at least twice as much as one of three did.
Breathless was the air over Bethlehem. Black and bare Were the fields; hard as granite the clods; Hedges stiff with ice; the sedge in the vice Of the pool, like pointed iron rods. And the deathly stillness spread from Bethlehem. It was shed Wider each moment on the land; Through rampart and wall into camp and into hall Stole the hush; all tongues were at a stand. At the Procurator’s feast the jocular freedman ceased His story, and gaped. All were glum Travellers at their beer in a tavern turned to hear The landlord; their oracle was dumb. But the silence flowed forth to the islands and the North And smoothed the unquiet river bars And levelled out the waves from their revelling and paved The sea with cold reflected stars.
Where the Caesar on Palatine sat at ease to sign, Without anger, signatures of death, There stole into his room and on his soul a gloom, And his pen faltered, and his breath. Then to Carthage and the Gauls, past Parthia and the Falls Of Nile and Mount Amara it crept; The romp and war of beast in swamp and jungle ceased, The forest grew still as though it slept. So it ran about the girth of the planet. From the Earth A signal, a warning, went out And away behind the air. Her neighbours were aware Of change. They were troubled with a doubt.
Salamanders in the Sun that brandish as they run Tails like the Americas in size Were stunned by it and dazed; wondering, they gazed Up at Earth, misgiving in their eyes. In Houses and Signs Ousiarchs* divine Grew pale and questioned what it meant; Great Galactal lords stood back to back with swords Half-drawn, awaiting the event, And a whisper among them passed, ‘Is this perhaps the last Of our story and the glories of our crown? –The entropy worked out?–The central redoubt Abandoned? The world-spring running down? Then they could speak no more. Weakness overbore Even them. They were as flies in a web, In their lethargy stone-dumb. The death had almost come; The tide lay motionless at ebb.
Like a stab at that moment, over Crab and Bowman, Over Maiden and Lion, came the shock Of returning life, the start and burning pang at heart, Setting Galaxies to tingle and rock; And the Lords dared to breathe, and swords were sheathed And a rustling, a relaxing began, With a rumour and noise of the resuming of joys, On the nerves of the universe it ran. Then pulsing into space with delicate, dulcet pace Came a music, infinitely small And clear. But it swelled and drew nearer and held All worlds in the sharpness of its call. And now divinely deep, and louder, with the sweep and quiver of inebriating sound, The vibrant dithyramb** shook Libra and the Ram, The brains of Aquarius spun round; Such a note as neither Throne nor Potentate had known Since the Word first founded the abyss, But this time it was changed in a mystery, estranged, A paradox, an ambiguous bliss.
Heaven danced to it and burned. Such answer was returned To the hush, the Favete, the fear That Earth had sent out; revel, mirth and shout Descended to her, sphere below sphere. Saturn laughed and lost his latter age’s frost, His beard, Niagara-like, unfroze; Monsters in the Sun rejoiced; the Inconstant One, The unwedded Moon, forgot her woes. A shiver of re-birth and deliverance on the Earth went gliding. Her bonds were released. Into broken light a breeze rippled and woke the seas, In the forest it startled every beast. Capripods fell to dance from Taproban to France, Leprechauns from Down to Labrador, In his green Asian dell the Phoenix from his shell Burst forth and was the Phoenix once more.
So death lay in arrest. But at Bethlehem the bless’d Nothing greater could be heard Than a dry wind in the thorn, the cry of the One new-born, And cattle in stall as they stirred.
C.S. Lewis, Poems, edited by Walter Hooper, 1992, pp. 49-51.
The After Effects
I’ve never imagined how it would feel to be a galaxy—Bowman or Crab, Libra or Ram— or even a planet of moon. But I’m glad Lewis did.
Because there must have been a ripple effect—a pulsing sound into space and even into forest and seas—when One babe was born. Maybe a shiver of re-birth and deliverance on the Earth.
And because every single day I feel the after-effects of the Babe born, the Son given. I live and love, I confess and forgive, and whenever I joyfully press on, it’s because of the coming of the One. It’s all because of the birth that arrested death.
Oh, yes. All these pulses and ripples and shivers and thrills and all this joyful musicmust mean the tide has turned.
The Tide Has Turned
A few years later, another famous Inkling, was also writing about the turn of the tide.
‘Gandalf,’ the old man repeated, as if recalling from old memory a long disused word. ‘Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf.’ He stepped down from the rock, and picking up his grey cloak wrapped it about him: it seemed as if the sun had been shining, but now was hid in a cloud again. ‘Yes, you may still call me Gandalf,’ he said, and the voice was the voice of their old friend and guide. ‘Get up, my good Gimli! No blame to you, and no harm done to me. Indeed my friends, none of you have any weapon that could hurt me. Be merry! We meet again. At the turn of the tide. The great storm is coming, but the tide has turned.’
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, 1956
The Child was born and the Son was given—unto us. The tide turned when the majestic glory of the King of the Universe was revealed in a Babe laying in a manger in Bethlehem.
And I’d be surprised if the galaxies didn’t dance.
So feel free. Be merry!
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
We await our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…
He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name…
Ooh. That sounded condescending, I confessed seconds after using the phrase, “So cute.” The topic? Christmas decor.
What does condescending mean? asked the 13 year-old son.
Like you’re God’s gift to the people you’re with. I paused, As if they’re beneath you and you’re so great to get on their level and give them the time of day.
Oh, he said.
I didn’t tell him the Latin part.
Condescending Is Seriously Bad
I can be condescending. The bad way—the smug, snooty, Seriously?! way. The, How could you not know that? way. I don’t say it. But sometimes I think it. And thinking it even once is too often for a child of God.
But I begin to think how good it is of me to “go low” and help someone “up.” Even with “so cute” Christmas decor. That thought betrays my pride. For humility is not thinking less of yourself, Lewis said, it’s thinking of yourself less. Jesus said, Don’t let your left hand know.
Bad condescending is bad not only because it’s proud, but because it lacks sympathy. I condescend the bad way when I feel like the people I’m “gracing” with my insight or presence should know better or know more or fear less and trust more.
I’m not alone in that mire. Even the great preacher C.H. Spurgeon confided,
There are distresses to which God’s people are subject with which their fellow Christians can have but little sympathy. Some Christians whom I have tried at times to comfort, have had fears so silly that I have felt more inclined to laugh at them than to console them.
Aunt Merriam says to condescend means 1: to assume an air of superiority, 2: to descend to a less formal or dignified level; to waive the privileges of rank. Number one is bad. Number two is the good.
Now here’s that Latin part. Condescendere comes from the Latin words con- which means ‘with’ or ‘together’ + descendere which means to ‘descend’ or ‘come down.’
A question for us: When we descend to be with another, is it with love and sympathy or pride and superiority?
Condescending Is Gloriously Good
The God way is the good way. Philippians 2, verses 6 and 7 explains the “good” condescension so beautifully,
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
Come, lift your hearts on high, Alleluia! Amen! let praises fill the sky; Alleluia! Amen! he is our Guide and Friend; to us he’ll condescend; his love shall never end. Alleluia! Amen!
Did you see it again? God’s condescending love is worthy of our praise. God’s is gloriously good condescension; his condescension is free from pride and full of sympathy. Spurgeon—and I— know that even when we are unsympathetic and condescend in the bad way, our God in not like us. Thank God he is not like us.
Now our God is so tender and gentle that He even condescends to deal with our silly fears…His gentleness shows itself in His being afflicted in our afflictions and entering into our sorrows, and putting Himself side by side with us in the battle of spiritual life.
Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes, with the princes of his people. He settles the barren woman in her home as a joyful mother of children.
The Lord who is enthroned on high nevertheless stooped to look down upon me. He was mindful of my humble estate. After ten years of barrenness, he remembered me. He came down with me and lifted me from the heap.
But our Lord condescends in everyday ways too. Today he gave me peace in conflict and strength to forgive again. Then he allowed a cancelled session which gave me time to finish a report. In big and small ways, God stoops down.
But He did it biggest at Christmas.
Christmas Is About Condescension
I think C.S. Lewis saw it that way. The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body, he wrote. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab. (Mere Christianity, Book IV, Chapter 5)
That condescending conversation in the van last night brought this song to mind in the morning. You might like it.
Who but God would send his Son To condescend and make himself the likes of a mere mortal man
For in the end, condescend is one of the sweetest, most Christmasy words I know. It’s why we stretch Advent out. Because in the incarnation, God did way more than just come down and give us a hand. More than just step out of his castle for an evening of revelry with his serfs at Ye Olde Pub. Oh, no. Infinitely more.
He became one of us. He took on our weakness, sympathized with our weakness and bore our sin. The Creator became a creature. Like us becoming slugs but far more shocking. Who would condescend like this?