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I bought the first Christmas presents in August.  When everyone else was talking about school starting back or the new crispness to the air,  I was tucking away presents.  My tree goes up around Thanksgiving and after that well, it’s pretty much all I can do not to jump up and down like a child every, single day as I await December 25th.  We live in a wonderful city that is bursting with amazing activities around the holidays.   For instance, this month alone,  the girls and I have trekked over to Opryland twice, where we enjoyed a beautiful display of lights and rode the riverboats.  We’ve seen Santa.  Our church put on their annual Christmas concert and the girls were part of the Kids Choir that sang beautifully—even a song in Japanese!  There was the Michael W.  Smith Christmas concert.  A couple of parks.  A party at church for a beloved class.  The annual Walk Thru Bethlehem, which transforms an ordinary church into the village marketplace of Jesus’s time.  A couple of parks,  a day at the science museum.  Then it was off to Cheekwood this week for their beautiful Christmas trees, live reindeer, ride in Santa’s sleigh and decorating of the cookies.   A holiday tea party,  a ride out to see the amazing display of lights that literally lights up an entire street.   After that,  we braved a little bit of windy weather to enjoy a Christmas movie under the stars at Cannonsburgh Village.  Our crazy elves have pulled all sorts of antics every day, from rappelling to puppet shows to flying away in a balloon.   We made Christmas cards and distributed them to children in a local hospital.    We’ve baked cookies a lot, too.  We’ve played Christmas music whenever we have been home.  I finished the book, finally, and it was released this month.  All of this, plus a lot of shopping and wrapping, in less than 24 days.  We’ve been very, very busy.  But it’s more than just fun—my heart literally jumps during this time of year.  I wake up excited and I go to bed excited.  On December 1st, our elves left a stack of 24 wrapped Christmas presents.  We’ve opened one every day and read it.  Sweetness and warmth permeate the whole house—and travels with us when we go out.  There’s an anticipation in the air this time of year and a sense of fragility that softens our hearts and brings us comfort and peace.  Truly, it is beautiful.

And, through it all,  You have been here.

You’re here all the time.  But lately, I haven’t been able to do much without thinking of You.  I’ve imagined holding a newborn baby and counting Your toes and  fingers.  I’ve imagined that sweet baby smell and putting my face near Yours.  I’ve imagined a cry, the sound all mothers ache to hear upon a baby’s birth.  You never had it easy.  You were born without a bed.  There was a crowded city.  And Your life was in danger from the moment You were born, first from Herod, then from the people.  What were You like as a child?  Were You serious and reflective or were you an average rambunctious boy?  Whatever Your personality might have held, I like to picture You laughing a lot.  I like to picture You smiling and happy.  But then You became a man.   When I was younger,  it was harder for me to connect to You.  I went straight to God because He was powerful and because He wasn’t a man.  He was a deity.    Brutally honest,  it was hard for me to trust a man.  Any man.  God held my hand,  God heard my prayers,  God understood.  God was not defined as a man but rather as this sort of all-knowing, all-powerful being.  I suppose the “all-powerful” thing should have scared me.  But instead Your Father brought me comfort.  I knew You were real.  And I knew what You did for me.  I was grateful, and I loved You.  I believed You and I knew You cared.  But I didn’t really feel You.  When I said Your name,  an image of a man came to mind.  And for a long time that left me feeling just a little bit distant from You.

Until about ten years ago.

I was sitting in my room.  I was pregnant with Breathe and I was scared spitless.  I had to tell my mom some very painful stuff  and I was terrified of doing that.  I sat in the room and prayed for help.  I prayed for my hand to be held.  After I finished praying, though, something happened.  There was a definite presence in the room.  I couldn’t see anyone but there was a warmth that was a short distance in front of me.  As I sat on the bed, it drew closer and closer until I felt it surround me.  I knew it was You.  I couldn’t see Your face but I felt a warmth unlike anything I had ever known.  And comfort.  And support.  I felt loved, even though I was all by myself.  Your name whispered in my heart and for the first time in my life I knew the comfort had come directly from You, not the Father Himself.   Your name was in my head the following day as I told my mom what happened when I was a kid.  Your name stayed with me over the coming months, in which I felt abandoned by people I loved and often scared.   Once the storm was over and feelings of safety slowly started to pour into my heart,  I remembered.  And, all of a sudden, I wanted to know who You were.  I didn’t care that You had once been fully man anymore.  I wasn’t scared of that, or intimidated, anymore.  Instead,  I wanted that warmth I’d felt to come back and I wanted it to stay with me.  I still felt closest to God but You were suddenly quite real.   When Breathe was three days old,  Gibson’s  “Passion of the Christ” was released in theaters and I took her with me to see it with my mom and sister.  Before the movie started, a man stood up and said,  “Probably at least 95% of us in this room are Christians and I just want to say a prayer before the movie starts.”  And he did.  It set the tone for what was to be one of the most intense and emotional set of images I have still ever seen.  And what hit me the most was how I kept thinking as the movie played about how it was MY name on Your heart while You talked to the crowds.  You weren’t talking just to them…. You were talking to me, too.    And it was MY name on Your heart as You carried that cross.  MY name was part of what stopped You from calling the angels when they drove the nails into your wrists.  You weren’t just tortured,  You died.   I’d always known this but somehow, at that time in my life, it hit me as real.

The beauty of Your life, though, is that You didn’t stay dead.  You conquered death.  You rose from that grave and walked out of it.

Emmanuel.  

You probably weren’t born on December 25.  In fact,  You were probably born closer to the end of September.  It doesn’t really matter what date You arrived on Earth.  What matters is that You arrived at all.  December 25 is the one day of the year reserved to remember Your birth.  A lowly, mostly ignored birth.  Only the angels sang for You that day.  Only a handful of shepherds and wise men were stirred enough to come to celebrate Your birthday.  A bright star held a place in the sky for them to find their way to You.  To me, it is breath-takingly beautiful, that star.  It tells me that the Earth itself rejoiced because its Savior was finally here.  You were with us,  Your broken, often ungrateful, disillusioned, prideful children.  You were with us,  Your hurting, sorrowful, guilt-laden children.  And You weren’t here with us to condemn us but to spread Your arms wide for us.  Instead of berating us for all that we lacked,  You said instead,  “Come to me, all of you who are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.”   When I am scared,  You gave me permission to use the sword of Your name to drive away darkness.  Your power isn’t in an army.  Your power isn’t found in mighty weapons.  Your power is in the immensity of Your love.

How great thou art.

Christmas is a beautiful time of year for me.  My girls and I have talked a lot about presents this month.  We’ve talked about how we give presents on December 25 for a lot of reasons.  In our house, presents are given because it helps us remember a part of Your birth story—the wise men presented You with gifts.  I tell my girls that presents are also given because it is a way for us to tell others that we love them—because You loved us first.  We make Your birth as real as we can this month:  we play “Nativity” a lot in which the girls will take turns dressing up as Mary and one of our rocking horses will be the camel that takes them to Bethlehem.  Our stuffed animals gather around the “barn” to welcome an unassuming baby boy.   And then the other two of us burst out in song, as the angels in the sky did for the shepherds.   Warmth fills our hearts, our schedules and our minds while we bake, while we shop, while we sing, while we play.   But no light display is as bright as that Star shining in the East was on that first Christmas Day.   Houses lit bright and flashing in tune to music just can’t compare with the glow of the baby Savior.

You’re my friend,  Jesus.   When I feel ugly,  the light in Your eyes convinces me I’m not.  When I am tired,  I lean on You.  When I am scared,  Your armor chases Fear away.  I don’t know why You intercede on my behalf to God but I know that You do because I’ve not been abandoned by Him yet.  And it’s Your birthday.  It isn’t about the many presents wrapped with ribbon and adorned with bows.  It isn’t about the cookies or the stockings hung by the fire.  It’s about You.  When my children wake on Christmas morning and drag me out of bed at the crack of dawn to open all their gifts,  the look of pure joy on their faces reminds me of what I imagine You might feel when one of us broken people turn back to You.  Christmas is a time to celebrate.   A time to celebrate life.  A time to celebrate what You did—all of it—out of love;  love for Your Father and for each of us.  Birthdays are days set aside in the year to be grateful for the impact someone has made on our lives.  In two days’ time, we will  rejoice.  Not because we’ve gotten what we’ve asked for this year but because You are with us.  We’ll have the biggest party of the entire year because even after giving all that You did, You are still giving to us.  I’ve worked hard this year to make my girls feel special on Christmas Day and I’ve done it because You think they’re special, and I want them to remember it.  Today,  I asked them again why we get presents soon.  Alight replied,  “Because it’s Jesus’ birthday” and my oldest one said,  “It’s one of His gifts to us.”   True, that.   You’ve given us a reason to celebrate.  You’ve given us a reason to believe that this coming year will be peaceful and prosperous.  You’ve given us a reason to hope.  You’ve given us hugs when we’ve needed them, doctors when we’ve needed them, friends when we’ve needed them,  humor when we’ve needed it and tenderness when we’ve ached for it.  You’ve given us each other.  You’ve given and given and given and given and given to infinity and beyond.  And the only thing You’ve ever asked for in return is our damaged, shattered, ugly and sinful selves.   You healed the people.  Gave sight to the blind.  Restoration to the lepers.  Food to the hungry.  Compassion to the wrong.  Life to the dead.  Friendship to the outcasts.  You’ve saved me—in at least a dozen ways and twice as many times.

I love You.

I love You because You are the only person in my entire life who truly, honest-to-goodness knows me.  It does no good to smile when I am before You if I don’t feel like smiling, because You know my heart isn’t smiling.  It does no good to pretend to be okay with You if I’m not, because You see everything inside of me.   So I’ve given up.  Instead of trying to be everything to You I’ve learned and am still learning to just be Tiffini.  Because Tiffini -is- everything to You.   We human beings spend entire lives trying to feel loved and accepted, trying to find someone who will love us even though we’re not perfect.  I can’t even express how deeply my heart aches for a safe hug these days, or to feel protected and cherished just for five minutes.  Your arms are the only place I know to go for that kind of belonging and acceptance, and what a haven You are.

It is Your birthday.  The one day of the year businesses still close,  people still go home,  bridges are mended.   It is Your birthday.  The one day of the year still considered to be one of the biggest, most celebrated and revered holidays in the world.  It is Your birthday.  And You are still being You:  still restoring, still interceding,  still giving, still loving, still knocking, even after having already sacrificed Your life.

Worthy is the Lamb.  

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