Now that Thanksgiving rests behind us, many of us begin turning our thoughts toward Christmas. Much uncertainty still surrounds the holiday, but perhaps successfully negotiating Thanksgiving, gives us confidence to press on. Of all the holidays, Christmas seems to keep us the most distracted. Cultivating a heart for Emmanuel can prove arduous amid shopping, gift wrapping, decorating, baking and various seasonal activities.
Family traditions, expectations and commitments overshadow the simple Christmas story. I remember many years of Christmases appearing more like a blur than an actual celebration. Each year I determined to slow down and celebrate with intention, but ended up arriving at Christmas morning exhausted and disappointed. Admittedly, to quote a well-worn song, “Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year”, but why didn’t I feel that way?
a distracted heart
Each year I resolutely turned my focus to a more meaningful celebration of Christmas. But sadly ended up distracted by expectations of others (mostly my children). I over committed and continually looked for activities or traditions to fill the empty place in my heart. Why didn’t I feel joy or expectant hope at the celebration of Christ’s first coming? Slowly God opened my eyes, revealing a misguided search for Christmas joy.
Existing completely in the external, my search for joy remained elusive. Seeking another seasonal activity, Christmas pageant or concert still left me “empty” and alone. Until one day I received an unusual gift from a dear friend that changed everything. It helped me understand cultivating a heart for Emmanuel was the key to Christmas joy.
A visit to bethlehem
My friend visited the Grotto of the Nativity, in the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, Israel. It is said to be the actual birthplace of Jesus Christ. Thousands flock there every year in December to view the sacred spot. In the grotto a candle is perpetually lit, symbolizing peace and unity. Every year a boy scout from Austria travels to Bethlehem to capture the flame in two lanterns, returning with the flame to Austria. From there the Peace Light travels all over the world for churches and individuals to light their own lanterns or candles from it.
My friend shared the tradition with me and gifted me a candle lit from the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This came at the end of a tremendously hard year that began with the full term stillbirth of my granddaughter, Indigo Evangeline. Wave after wave of loss, suffering and grief travelled with me through that year. And despite my best efforts of clinging to God, it seemed the darkness shrouded His Presence. With the advent of Christmas, none of the enchanting lights of the season dispelled my darkness. With the exception of one small light; the moment I lit the Bethlehem candle, everything changed.
I sat in a room by the light of my Christmas tree, the Bethlehem candle on a small table before me, and my friend’s words on a note in my hands. Her prayer for me answered in that moment; “May this candle bring you the Peace and Presence of Emmanuel”. It felt as if the darkness shrouding me became a blanket of light that held me. Emmanuel, God with ME. Yes, I knew that name for God and its meaning, but until that moment it remained “knowledge” not reality.
I’m not implying the candle from the Grotto of the Nativity held any magical powers. It may or may not be the actual place of Christ’s birth. God simply chose to speak His name Emmanuel into my darkness using a candle lighted in the very city of His nativity. A candle that then travelled across the world in the hands of a dear friend, then lovingly placed in mine. He flooded my heart with the Peace of His Presence both in that moment and in all the painful moments that came before.
an unprepared heart
In both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible we find over 950 names for God. The names refer to all three persons of the Godhead, with the majority referencing Jesus Christ. God chooses to reveal facets of Himself to His people through these names. We recognize the familiar names of YAHWEH, EL SHADDAI and JEHOVAH as well as many others. In the Christmas season, our thoughts turn toward Emmanuel.
We know from Hebrews 13:5 and other verses that God promised never to leave us, so we have the security of His Presence. Yet many times that presence doesn’t feel real to us. Christmas affords us the opportunity of welcoming Emmanuel anew in meaningful ways. But this involves preparation, just as John the Baptist heralded the need for preparation all those years ago prior to Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. As I sat empty and alone that Christmas five years ago, I realized grief and suffering hardened my heart to God’s Presence. Graciously, God revealed my need for cultivating a heart for Emmanuel.
cultivating a heart for emmanuel
Through God’s kindness in speaking His name Emmanuel to me that Christmas, even in my unprepared state, He opened my eyes to the beauty of Advent. I foolishly abandoned the Advent tradition many years prior, thinking it more of an “empty tradition”. But for me, it supplied the needed focal point of welcoming Emmanuel anew each Christmas. It provided needed reflection on the prophecy and fulfillment of prophecy in Christ’s birth. And reflection on the magnitude of what Christ accomplished in His first Coming.
The story should never grow old for us, but for me, I allowed it to fade in importance. Of course you don’t need to practice an Advent tradition as part of cultivating a heart for Emmanuel. Spending time reflecting on the scope of the Christmas nativity from prophecy to fulfillment in the Bible, fosters anticipation and joy. With that in mind, I delight in sharing a new resource entitled “Welcoming Emmanuel, Bible Verse Reflections to Prepare Your Heart For Christmas”.
My Gift to You
Knowing the demands and distractions of the season, I developed a simple resource you can use to stay focused on cultivating a heart for Emmanuel. It contains 25 Bible verses and a reflection for each. One verse each day leading up to Christmas Day can be used alone as part of your daily quiet time or with your Advent practice.
While I move through lighting the appropriate Advent candle weekly, and read accompanying scriptures, I like to light the candles each night during the week as well. Reading one of the verses from my Welcoming Emmanuel booklet each night while lighting a candle provides a good time of reflection. Or choose to spend a moment of your daily quiet time with one verse each day. This is my gift to you, absolutely FREE! take a moment to sign up in the form below and you will immediately receive access to my Resource Library to claim your FREE download.
If you are already a member of my Serenity in Suffering Compassionate Community, simply head over to the Resource Library and grab your FREE download today! If you forgot your password, contact me and I’ll send it to you!
O come, o come, emmanuel
If God’s Presence feels far away for you, take time this Christmas season and welcome Emmanuel anew. Know that no darkness can completely shroud Him from you, He came those many years ago in Bethlehem to rescue you. He came as Jesus, Messiah, to save His people from their sins, but He also came as Emmanuel, that the Peace of His Presence might shine a light into your darkness, as He did in mine.
However you choose to prepare your heart this Christmas, invite Emmanuel into each moment. Look for Him in the mundane, simple moments of each day. For just as two millennia ago, He brought the most joy to those who eagerly awaited His arrival. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!
Be sure to grab your FREE copy of my new resource, Welcoming Emmanuel today. Even if you normally do Advent activities, journal or other activity during December, you won’t want to miss this! You can do this right along side those activities!