Many years have gone by since I opened a gift on Christmas Eve. As kids, my brother and I used to rush our parents out of the evening church service so we could get home and carefully choose one colorfully wrapped package from under the tree.
This Christmas Eve, I was presented with a gift so precious I found myself temporarily speechless. It was one of those gifts where you want to say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” or “You didn’t need to do that!” to the giver.
The old tradition was unearthed in the form of two little girls we’ve “adopted” into our family. Angela is a former student who stole a piece of my heart. We started taking Christmas gifts to her and her four siblings a few years back, and now they are a regular part of our lives. Part of that regularness is taking them to the grand Christmas Eve service with my parents at First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth. Dressed in their prettiest clothes, Angela and her little sister, Mary, sit snugly between all of us on the pew as we sing Christmas hymns, take communion and light candles in the darkness singing “Silent Night.”
During the service, I received my first gift: watching a child learn to follow the words in a hymnal for the first time. I held the red book for Mary, tracking my finger along the words as her tiny voice sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I began to look around, like when you see your child take those first steps and wonder if anyone else is there to witness the moment.
Gift number two came in the form of a question. The little girls were busily studying the service program, asking why some of the words were in bold (people speak) and others were not (pastor speaks). Then Angela looked up and whispered, “What is a manger?” I had to suck in my breath to hold back the tears. During my awkward silence, I reflected back on my 11 years as a mom and my six years as a teacher. I have never been asked such a simple but meaningful question; I mean, we all assume our children have been saturated with the story of Christ enough to know what all of it means, from the bed of hay to the heavenly host. What do I say? Then I felt the hands of Jesus on my shoulders because that’s the only way I could find any words of wisdom.
“A manger is like a barn,” I explained. “When Jesus was born, there was no place for his mother to have the baby, so she had to give birth to Him in a barn with animals all around.”
Another Christmas classic was next in the program, which gave me time to gather myself and hope that my words didn’t completely confuse the poor child. This time, I just listened to their voices and watched as their little brown eyes moved around the church from the organ pipes to the brightly lit garland and the rows of poinsettias garnishing the front railings.
When the service was over and we made the slow walk into the lobby, God shone a spotlight on my final gift. There next to the doors was a large nativity scene, complete with real hay. I grabbed the girls and led them toward the scene, waiting impatiently for a family to take their Christmas photo in front of it and move along. (If you were that family, I apologize for staring at you and nudging you out of the way, but this was a God thing).
“This is a manger,” I explained, pointing out baby Jesus, Joseph, Mary and the wise men. They listened as if I was sharing a great secret when I told about the wise men who traveled a long way to see this important baby and all they had to lead them there was a star.
Now on more than one account, Angela has left me stunned and breathless by her simple and profound observations, both written and spoken. Again, on this Christmas Eve, God used her as a messenger. She pointed to the brassy star at the apex of the manger and said, “That was the star they followed – the star God gave them from heaven.”
“Yes, Angela,” I said, “God showed them the way with a star.”
I have truly seen the magic of Christmas through a child’s eyes. It is not a cliché or a myth, but exists in the curious hearts of humble children who live in a tiny apartment smaller than a manger. Now I know what awestruck wonder feels like.
Jesus, you shouldn’t have, but boy am I glad you did.