Dear Church, dear friends,
The year draws to its close and despite its various sorrows and worries we are drawn back again to see how much we have been blessed, to see ourselves anew in the light of the Bethlehem star. I wanted to share the text below as a little Christmas devotion. I know that for me the words are tinged with a certain personal nostalgia that you will not feel but I hope that even so you will sense something of the tender warmth that I continue to find here.
At Christmas in my parents’ home, after the traditional festive dinner, our family gathered to sit in the candlelight from the tree and around the room. Before the coming exchange of presents we would listen to the Christmas lessons from Isaiah and Luke and sing a few verses of familiar Christmas hymns. As part of that time my father would also read another passage and more than once it was this one that, when necessary, he would render into English from the Swedish in which it was printed in a little prayer book.
The passage is attributed to St. Jerome, but I’m sure that’s apocryphal and that the words actually come from a later era in the church’s history. It strikes me also that if you’d asked my dad his thoughts about forgiveness and atonement and salvation he wouldn’t have spoken in exactly the same way as this passage’s theological assumptions. But that’s not the point, of course. He loved this devotion, as did I in hearing it. The words still spoke to the imagination of the heart of what this feast can give us, this encounter with Jesus, so tiny, so great, so loving. Here it is in my translation from that old devotional book:
“Whenever I gaze toward Bethlehem my heart carries on a conversation with the infant Jesus. I say, ‘Oh, Lord Jesus, you are so cold and shivering, lying there on that hard manger for my sake. How can I repay you for this?’
“Then it seems to me as if the child answered: ‘I desire nothing, dear Jerome. Be at peace. I shall suffer far worse in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Holy Cross.’
“I keep speaking to him, ‘Dearest Christ Child, I have to be able to give you something. I want to give you all my money.’
“The child answers, ‘Heaven and earth belong to me; I don’t need your money. Give it all to the poor and I will consider it as given to me.’
“I persist: ‘Dearest Christ Child, that I would gladly do, but still I really need to give something to you yourself. Otherwise I will die of longing.’
“And then the child says to me, ‘Dear Jerome, since you are so generous I will tell you what you shall give me. Give me your sins, your haunted conscience, and your despair.’
“I answer: ‘What would you do with these things?’ And then Christ answers me: ‘I shall put them on my shoulders, and there they shall become my glory and dominion. Remember how Isaiah foretold that I would carry away your sins.’
“Then I began to weep, and I said, ‘O little child, dear Christ Child, how you have touched my heart! I thought you would want something good from me, and here instead you have asked only for what is bad inside of me. Take then what is mine, and give me that which is yours! Then shall I be free from sin and certain of life eternal.’”