I gave a talk at our ward Christmas party last year, which I called “Behold, the Condescension of God.” Thought I’d share it here…
Cross-posted on Doves and Serpents.
When I was growing up, Christmas meant joy, magic, music, and laughter. I imagine it means that to lots of children, but my father is particularly good at it. He embodies the Christmas spirit. The way he recites The Grinch in his convincing British accent. How he tells us every year about the Christmas Eve in his boyhood, when he awoke to discover one of Santa’s elves snooping around his bedroom. How he cries every time Scrooge pledges to really change, or Clarence the angel gets his wings.
I’ll never forget the year the ward went around doing video interviews with families about their Christmas traditions, which were made into a video montage and played at the annual Christmas party. Everyone else had perfectly respectable traditions: Christmas lights, recipes, favorite songs. But when it came time for the Ackerman’s portion of the movie, Dad had made everyone get all dressed up in bedsheets with towels on our heads, acting out the scene when the angels came to announce the birth of Christ to the shepherds. He’d made us sing “Angels We Have Heard on High” in 4-part harmony. My little sister was standing on the piano bench with her arm outstretched, shouting, “Fear not! For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy!” Everyone else’s clips were 30-second DESCRIPTIONS of their holiday traditions. Ours was a 5-minute-plus DEMONSTRATION. As a teenager, I can tell you that it was THE most embarrassing moment of my life.
Still, I carried with me a sense of the joyous and spectacular about Christmas. I couldn’t remember a single unhappy Christmas in all my life.
Until last year, when the Lord gave me a new glimpse into this holiday of holidays.
2010 was something of a rough year for me. I dove headfirst into a grueling battle with my own version of what Paul called a thorn in the flesh. We all have our thorns – nagging, sometimes agonizing, reminders of our fallen state. They could be depression, anxiety, or mental illness. Sins and temptations we can’t seem to shake. Addictions. Difficult childhoods. Physical impairments or ailments.
Coming to accept and work within our limitations is an important, healing process – but the truth is that when you engage in this sort of work, you often feel worse before you feel better. 2010 was the worst I’d ever felt.
Christmas was hard. I’d had hard times before, of course, but I’d always been able to keep them to myself with a determined smile and a deliberate upward inflection in my voice. Christmas had always been a welcome distraction from my worries. But last year I couldn’t muster it. I was struggling so deeply that I could no longer hide it from my family and friends.
Then the Lord gave me an insight that brought me some peace.
He reminded me of Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life.
In 1 Nephi 11, an angel appears to Nephi, and Nephi asks the angel what the beautiful tree means.
In response, Nephi is shown a vision of a Virgin bearing a Son in a stable. After Nephi sees this, the angel asks: “Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?”
And Nephi answers, “Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men.”
I asked myself, “Why? Why did Nephi understand that the tree was love of God after he saw Jesus being born?”
The answer was quickly revealed in the scripture, for just a few verses later, the angel exclaims, “Behold, the condescension of God!” Now, condescension means to come down from a high place to a much lower place. I realized that the love of God isn’t best manifest in His might and glory and creation and dominion – though it is expressed there, too, of course – but in His humility, His empathy, His willingness to get down into the dirt with us.
After discovering this, I recorded some of my thoughts and feelings. This is a portion of what I wrote…
For all the lights and tinsel, for all the sparkling packages and clanking bells, for all the Hallelujah choruses, the decadent food, the elaborate parties, the ugly sweaters with sequins and snowmen and swirls — we are honoring the birth of a God who, ultimately, came to suffer; and in His sufferings, triumph.
That is not to say the triumph doesn’t deserve the joy and gaiety we lavish upon it; merely that this year I need to focus on the humility of His beginning and the depth of His condescension — so lowly, so meek, that He came to meet me where I am.
So to the God born in a barn, not in a palace, not in a hospital, not even a clean bed, and laid to sleep in a feeding trough: Thank You. You have no beauty that I should desire You, You who are smitten and afflicted, bruised and forsaken — and yet I do. From the depths of my soul, I do!
Now this story, as all stories do when we give ourselves over to the God who descended below all things – regardless of the mortal outcome – has a happy ending. I am through the worst of that particular battle (though as is the case with our thorns in the flesh, I may never be rid of it fully). Christmas this year is as much about trumpets and tinsel and joy as it ever was. But there is a tenderness about it, and I hope about me, that was not there before. A clearer understanding. A deeper well of compassion and empathy and the pure of love of Christ.
The theme tonight is “O Come All Ye Faithful,” but I wonder if we might not be able to expand it.
O Come, all ye faithful. O Come, all ye doubtful. Come, all ye sorrowful and shameful and prideful and sinful.
Come lay your burdens at His feet. Come take part of the condescension of Christ. You are never so low, but that He has gone lower. You are never so lost but that He will seek you out.
May we all have a very merry Christmas.