Mayberry and Bluemont Presbyterian Churches
Christmas Eve 2021
Luke 2:1-20 (verse 19)
This video contains a whole service that includes music along with the homily
Growing up, I never felt like our Christmas tree was the real thing. Yeah, it was a live tree; we’d never go for the artificial variety. But it was store bought, purchased from the Optimist Club, which was logical since they supported the local Little League program.
On the night we put up the tree, we’d all wait patiently—or maybe not so patiently—for Dad to come home from work. When he arrived, we’d pile in the car and drive to the lot on Oleander Drive. It was a makeshift operation, some bare bulbs hanging from wires overhead illuminating the lot that in summer was a putt-putt golf course. Trees stood up against wires running between poles. We’d go through the lot looking at 100s of them. None ever seem perfect. And the ones I liked, my brother or sister wouldn’t like. Or it was too big. It was hard to get all of us to agree. After 15 minutes of this fruitless exercise, my parents assumed authority and picked out a tree. Dad paid for it. Then he tied it to the top of our car for the ride home.
In some ways, it’s odd that my dad purchased a tree instead of finding a place to cut one. He’s the type of man who never brought anything he could make, and that included our tree stand. Had the bomb dropped on our house, something kids worried about in the 60s, I’m sure Dad’s tree stand would have been the only thing to survive. I was in Middle School before I could pick it up. It was constructed from a large flat piece of 3/8-inch plate steel with a four-inch steel tube welded to it. The trunk went into the tube. At the top of the tube, he’d drilled holes and tapped it so the bolts could be tightened to hold the tree in place. It was hard to get water into the tube, so after the first year, he drilled a bunch of holes in the side of the tube and then welded a shorter eight-inch pipe over it. We could pour water into the larger tube, and it would seep into the trunk. This tree stand was so solid that the tree’s trunk would have broken before it would have toppled.
As a child, I wondered why we didn’t have one of those red stands with green legs made of tin, like all other families. I was envious of those flimsy tree stands sold at J. C. Fields. As an adult, before moving to an artificial tree, I found myself wishing for Dad’s old stand. The tree in that stand would have survived kids, dogs, cats, and rowdy guests, all of which have been known to topple a tree my living room.
My maternal grandparents still lived on a farm and never had a store-bought tree. For me, they had a real tree—an Eastern Cedar—thick and full and fragrant compared to the scrawny firs the Optimist Club imported from Canada. My mother, obviously trying to console us, said firs brought down from Canada were better because you had more room between branches on which to hang ornaments. She was trying to convince herself, I’m sure. Deep down, she knew that for a tree to be authentic, you had to select the one for the sacrifice, and cut it you’re your own hands.
Of all the trees I’ve seen in my life, the one that stands out as the ideal tree was the one my grandmother and grandfather Faircloth had for Christmas 1966. It was a full, well-shaped cedar my grandfather had cut near the branch that ran behind his tobacco barn. Although I didn’t witness the harvesting of this tree, I imagine him, sitting on top of his orange Allis Chambers tractor, with the tree tied behind the seat, hauling it back home. This tree took up a quarter of their living room and its scent filled their home. Grandma decorated it simply: white lights, red bulbs, and silver icicles. And, of course, there were presents underneath along with boxes of nuts and fruit.
They gave me a Kodak Instamatic Camera, that year, the kind that used the drop-in 126-film cartridges and those square disposable flashes that mounted on top. It was the closest thing to a foolproof camera ever built. I got good use out of that camera. It’d be nearly another decade before I replaced it with a 35 millimeter. My grandfather did not feel good that Christmas, but after some coaxing, I came outside so I could take a picture of him and my grandmother in front of the house.
Even though I lost this picture years ago, I can still visualize the snapshot in my mind. Grandma and Granddad stood in front of their porch, by one of the large holly bushes that framed their steps. My slender grandmother, a bit taller than her husband, has her arm around him. They’re both smiling. Granddad sports his usual crew cut. In the picture, my grandparents are a bit off-center and crooked, for the camera in the hands of a kid wasn’t as foolproof as Kodak led everyone to believe. But the image was sharp. It still is, in my mind.
My granddad never raised another crop of tobacco. Although I don’t know for sure, he may have never even driven his tractor again, for early that January, his heart gave out. Perhaps that’s why the memory is so vivid.
I’m sure my Christmas memories are normal. You probably have similar ones—some are good, and others are of Christmases that didn’t live up to expectation. And then there are those sad Christmases in which we lost loved ones. There’s nothing wrong with a normal Christmas, for if you look at the birth narrative in Luke’s gospel, that’s what the first one was all about. It was business as usual. Mary and Joseph have traveled to Bethlehem to do their civic duty, registering for the census. You have shepherds working the graveyard shift. Even birth itself is normal. It’s how we all came into this world. In this ordinary world God enters. Good news! God appears in an ordinary world, in an ordinary life, just like ours. We don’t have to do anything special to experience God. The Almighty finds us waiting in line to meet a government bureaucrat or while working the nightshift. God finds us where we are, that’s one of the messages of Christmas.
The Good Book tells us that after the shepherds left the Baby Jesus, rejoicing and praising God, Mary pondered in her heart all the things she’d heard and experienced. The late Raymond Brown, a well-known scholar who wrote the most detailed commentary on the birth narratives of the Gospels, says the word “pondered” literally means “thrown side by side.” Mary brought together in her heart all the events occurring in Bethlehem and during her pregnancy and juggled them around in an attempt to understand.
There must have been a variety of emotions of which we can only speculate. How much of her Son’s future did she really understand? Possibly not much. It would be thirty years before Jesus’ ministry would begin. And even after he started his ministry, there were times Mary and her family tried to talk Jesus out of it. A normal mother, trying to protect her son. The birth of any child is miraculous to the mother, so maybe Mary just thought all that happened that night in Bethlehem was normal. As the years went by forgot about the angels and the prophecies concerning her son.
Mary is important to the story, not only because she is the mother of our Savior. Mary’s the only person mentioned in the gospels whose presence bridge the life of Jesus. She gives birth, she’s at the cross with her heart heavy with sorry, probably still pondering and wondering, and on the first day of the week is there to experience the resurrection.
Ever since that first Christmas some 2000 years ago in the small town of Bethlehem, the day has been one in which we ponder its meaning while creating our own memories. The picture etched in my mind of me photographing my grandparents reminds me of the family from which I sprung, a family who saw to it that I had a chance to know the Christ-child as someone more just a reason to receive gifts.
Those trees I remember from my childhood, whose roots historically are pagan, have become a symbol for the life Christ brought into the world, the greatest gift we can receive. The impossibility of finding the perfect tree, a task so daunting for my family, always seemed so silly afterwards for even imperfect ones become perfect when decorated. And God works the same miracles in us, taking what is weak and imperfect and using it to carry out his mission in the world. And if I wanted to stretch it, I could even point to my Dad’s Christmas tree stand as a metaphor for the solid foundation we all need in our lives! The memories of Christmas that stay with me are not of receiving gifts. It is the assurance of being loved, by parents and grandparents, and ultimately by God.
Tonight, ponder what this all means. I suppose for most of us, our fondest Christmas memories are as children or when we had children of our own. In a profound way, Christmas is about children. Think of the possibilities that rest in an infant.
The birth of a child in Bethlehem, the joy of a child tearing into wrapped presents and then hugging a parent, the twinkle of candlelight in our eyes as we sing Silent Night help remind us what it’s all about. And when we hear those words from Jesus’ adult ministry, that unless we come as a child, we will never enter the kingdom of God, we can think about how we viewed things as a child. Perhaps this is what we should be pondering as we once again recall and celebrate God’s entry into our world. How might we become child-like and accept our Savior into our heart? Amen.
Recently, I came across another wonderful mediation about Christmas and children from “The Plough,” a devotional site for Christmas. Click here to read it.
Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 406.
 In John 7:5, we see that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him. Was this the reason his brothers and Mary were trying to see Jesus in Matthew 12:46 and Mark 3:31?
 Not only was Mary present at the death, she’s listed as being present with the early church. See Acts 1:14.
 Luke 18:17.