27 December 2021

What I Said on Christmas Eve


What Christmas Means to Me

The Christmas story, the story of Jesus’ birth has been told and retold for centuries in venues ranging from great Gothic Cathedrals to tiny log cabins to fox holes at the battlefront.  Millions are likely more familiar with this story than they are with the circumstances and details of their own birth.  Jesus’ nativity is the story of obedience, service, peace and hope.   

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.  And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”

The word taxed in the King James Bible can be translated also as counted, or numbered. It is generally thought that a census was being taken and everyone went to the city of their ancestral home.  When the Israelites entered the promised land it was divided among the tribes with the area of Bethlehem, already an old city, being given to the tribe of Judah. Joseph and Mary traveled south to be counted among the descendents of the tribe of Judah.

Having given birth five times, myself, I can imagine what a difficult and tiring journey that must have been. Joseph and Mary arrived to find the city thronged with the returning families that had scattered over the years. Perhaps the journey took longer than anticipated because of frequents stops for rests. Whatever the reasons, it wasn’t too long after arrival that the birth of Mary’s child was imminent.
 “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.  And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”   (Luke 2:1, 3-7)

The scriptures are silent as to who attended Mary as she labored and delivered this special baby. Perhaps Joseph sent for a midwife, perhaps a relation, a cousin or aunt, was there. Perhaps there were angels unseen, but ministering and comforting a young wife far from home giving birth to the Savior of the world in humble circumstances.

We do know what happened after Jesus was born.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”  (Luke 2:8-14)

“And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

“And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.  

“And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.”  (Luke 2: 15-17)

The Shepherds didn’t procrastinate after hearing about the Savior’s birth. They didn’t call for a meeting and put it on the calendar. They went “with haste” to the manger where the baby lay.  After they saw for themselves, they left the stable bursting with good news, telling everyone they could about the wondrous babe in the manger.

Is there a message for us here?  We can’t be satisfied merely to hear about Jesus.  We must seek him ourselves.  Searching for him “with haste” and then when we have found him; telling others, sharing the precious gift of God, just as the shepherds of old did. Finding the Savior should change our lives. Having faith in him should change our lives. Obeying him will change our life. Following him will change our life. Sharing him will change others.

The story doesn’t end there though. The Lord taught Nephi saying “Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men,. . .and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea even upon all the nations of the earth?” (1 Nephi 29:7)

Matthew records what happened next in Jesus’ story.

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him?

“And they said unto [them] In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet, ‘And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.’  

“When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

“And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him; and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”  (Matthew 2:1-2, 5-6, 9-11)

The scriptures don’t give us the identity of the wise men from the east; but in my mind they could be prophets from the eastern lands to whom the Lord revealed the signs of his coming. They recognized the signs when given and journeyed westward to Bethlehem to offer their gifts to the newborn King.

We can offer gifts to Christ also.  He said “And ye shall offer . . . unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit . . . Therefore, whoso repenteth and cometh unto me as a little child, him will I receive, for of such is the kingdom of God.” (3 Nephi 9:20, 22)  “For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.” (Mark 3:35) “Therefore let your light so shine before this people, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (3 Nephi 12:16)  “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40) 
What does Christmas mean to me? Christmas celebrates the beginning of the mortal life of the One who would grow up to accomplish the mission of the Great Atoning Sacrifice.  Jesus is our Brother, our Spiritual Father, our Exemplar, our Healer, our Lord and Savior.  I celebrate his mortal birth in gratitude for his condescension and mercy in coming to save us from the bonds of death and sin.

Is there a right way to celebrate his birth? Not really. Christmas can be anything that leads us to Him, to obey Him, to serve Him, to share Him with others.  When we look beneath all the trappings of commercialism we can find the core of love and service that motivates our celebration.  The Psalmist expresses the feelings of my heart, “I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.  My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the Lord.” (Psalms 104:33-34)

I testify that he lives; he is our Savior, Redeemer and Friend; and his Atonement is infinite and eternal, as well as totally personal for each one of us.

15 December 2021

The Most Important Talk I've Ever Written

In 2014 I was asked to be the main Sacrament Meeting speaker on the Sunday before Christmas. When I prayed to know what I should say this is the talk that came to me, it was a deeply spiritual experience. I hope it will inspire you this season.

Christmas 2014
Atlantic Branch Sacrament Meeting
21 December 2014

At various times in my life I’ve suffered with acute homesickness. Sometimes, such as when I was a missionary, the condition of homesickness was easily explained. At other times while at home with a loving husband and wonderful children the intense feelings of longing for home were not so readily understandable. After pondering and praying about it I realized that the longings were not for an earthly home and family but for my heavenly home and family. Although a veil of forgetfulness covers our memories when we are born here on earth, our spirit remembers and responds to echoes of the beauty and refinement we used to know. We feel our hearts and souls stretching to reach our Heavenly Parents and long to be with them again as we were in the beginning.

The poet William Wordsworth put it most beautifully:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:  
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,   60
        Hath had elsewhere its setting,  
          And cometh from afar:  
        Not in entire forgetfulness,  
        And not in utter nakedness,  
But trailing clouds of glory do we come   65
        From God, who is our home:

Let’s imagine the scene in our pre-mortal life. With our intelligences housed in our spirit bodies we had matured to the point where we needed to take the next step to progress any further. Our Heavenly Father called for a Grand Council of all His children. We gathered in anticipation of His wisdom and teaching. He spoke eloquently of His Plan for our Happiness which would require that we leave His presence and go to an earth for further schooling and testing. I imagine He showed us the blueprints of the world we would live on and images of what it would look like. I’m sure we were in awe of the planned world’s beauty and majesty. We were thrilled to be able to have the chance to gain a body like our Father’s, for that is the only way we could become like Him. He taught us of the perils we would face and the tests we would endure away from Him. Although they may have sounded challenging and maybe a bit frightening, in our youthful vigor we knew we could be valiant and strong; we would pass the tests and return unscathed.

Our experienced Father knew better than we did that all of us would stumble and fall in mortality, no one would return unscarred. He gently explained to us that because He cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance He would provide a Savior for us to take upon Himself our sins and weaknesses, paying the terrible price of justice for us through an Atoning Sacrifice so that mercy could claim us. I expect we breathed a sigh of relief at the news that through repentance and accepting the power of the Atonement we could be cleansed and made whole so we might return to our Father.

When Father asked “Whom shall I send [to be the Savior]?” (Abraham 3:27) two of our brothers stepped forward. Lucifer spoke up “Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor.” (Moses 4:1) Jesus, whom the Father called My Beloved Son, answered “Here am I, send me Father; thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.” (Abraham 3:27 and Moses 4:2) Heavenly Father chose His Beloved Son, Jesus, known as Christ, the Anointed One, to send to earth at the appointed time to be our Savior. 

Next we watched as the earth was created for us. Do you remember our reaction?

In the Old Testament is a record of Jehovah asking Job “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7) That was us! Our reaction was joyful singing! Sometimes I wonder if the stirring feelings I experience when I hear the Tabernacle Choir sing are because my soul remembers the joy and singing of that grand occasion. 

The earth was created and Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden. They were married by God, and given commandments, first, to be fruitful and multiply, and second, to not partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. While in the garden they walked and talked with God, innocent as children. We do not know how long they were in this state. But we do know that they couldn’t progress any further. I’m sure we watched and wondered what would happen, trusting in Our Father’s wisdom that His Plan would work for our good. 

Satan came along with the idea that he could really mess things up. He didn’t realize that he was part of the plan. Our Father in Heaven cannot force anyone. He gives us the most precious gift of agency, the power to choose for ourselves. Heavenly Father knew we needed to come to earth and experience mortal life to be tested away from His presence. He allowed Satan to tempt our first parents, giving Adam and Eve the chance to choose for themselves whether or not they would be obedient. Eve, in a great act of courage and faith, partook of the forbidden fruit, so that Father’s plan could come to pass and we all would have the chance to be born into mortality. I believe that there was great rejoicing as we watched the Plan unfold on earth.

Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden for transgressing the commandment and now were mortal, subject to pain and death. Spiritual separation from God and physical death of our mortal bodies were the results of the fall. 

After being cast out of the garden, Adam and Eve became farmers, the scriptures say “they began to till the earth, and to have dominion over all the beasts of the field, and to eat [their] bread by the sweat of [their] brow.” (Moses 5:1) They began to have children, and their children grew up and paired off and began to multiply. We watched as our spirit brothers and sisters departed for their turn on earth.

Adam and Eve continued faithful and prayed together, and in time heard the voice of the Lord from over by the garden, giving them commandments to worship the Lord their God, and offer the firstlings of their flocks for an offering unto the Lord. The scriptures record that Adam was obedient to the commandments of the Lord. (Moses 5:4-5)

After some time, the scriptures say “many days”, an angel of the Lord appeared to Adam and asked “Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord?” Adam said “I know not, save the Lord commanded me.” Adam obeyed the commandments without fully understanding what they meant. The angel then explained, “This thing [meaning the sacrifice of the firstling of the flock] is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth. Wherefore, thou shalt do all that thou doest in the name of the Son and thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the son forevermore.” (Moses 5:6-8)

The scriptures record that “. . . in that day the Holy Ghost fell upon Adam, which beareth record of the Father and the Son saying: I am the Only Begotten of the Father from the beginning; henceforth and forever, that as thou hast fallen thou mayest be redeemed, and all mankind, even as many as will.” (Moses 5:9) Adam responded to this, “Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God.” Eve said, “Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.” (Moses 5:10-11) I wonder if we, the unborn spirits waiting to come to earth, were there, eavesdropping a little and rejoicing that Our Father’s Plan of Happiness was proceeding.

I wonder if we got impatient in heaven as we watched events on earth. Did we rejoice when our brothers and sisters were righteous? Did we mourn when they were wicked? Did we hope that we would do better and be faithful in our mortal experience? I wonder if we interviewed those who had gone before us to see what earth life was really like. Were we anxious and afraid, or full of hope and faith, valiant in our testimony and longing for the chance to prove ourselves?

Now let’s move forward in time to the point when the most important baby would be born on earth. Our Father sent an angel to a carefully chosen and prepared young woman to announce that she, Mary, was the chosen vessel. Oh how we must have looked on her with love and admiration, knowing of her great virtue and purity.  Nephi describes her as “most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.” (1 Ne 11:15) And I’m sure we admired Joseph for his humility and obedience when told his beloved was with child and that he should not fear to take her as his wife. I have no doubt we watched as they journeyed to Bethlehem to be counted in the census ordered by Roman leaders. Do you think we were nervous about the timing and the threat to the faithful in the western hemisphere that if the sign was not given they would be killed? Did we have faith and trust in Our Father that his timing is perfect?
And then began the labor of bringing a mortal body into this world. We watched as Mary brought forth her first born son. Perhaps we were among the heavenly host who announced the birth to the humble shepherds. Can you imagine the joy we felt as we sang “Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” Our hearts must have overflowed with happiness that the Anointed One was finally born to live his mortal life and be our example, our guide, our Savior.

We must have hovered near as the shepherds made haste to worship at the manger, and left to spread the good news to others who had waited so long for the Messiah to arrive. Do you think we watched the wise men from the east traveling toward the star? They must have consulted their scrolls of prophecy and counseled among themselves to ensure they were proceeding in the right direction. Then did we return to watch as they presented their gifts to the young child and his mother? Oh, how gracious they were and generous in their gifts to the Son of God; he who was promised and prophesied of since the beginning of the world. Could we have guessed the wickedness of the Satan inspired leaders whose jealousy propelled the slaughter of the innocents. We must have wept at the horrifying edict of Herod to kill children under the age of two, and were so grateful that the Father sent an angel to warn Joseph to take his family to safety in Egypt.

I imagine we watched carefully as our Savior grew to manhood and embraced His mission to bring salvation to the world. He was completely obedient to all of Our Father’s commandments. He never faltered or gave in temptation. We must have marveled at His knowledge and complete self-control. He made it look so easy!

He lived up to the names Isaiah prophesied he would have:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

Jesus went about doing good, teaching and training His disciples to become Apostles, special witnesses of Him, who could carry on the work when He was gone. He taught His followers of a higher law and the discipline of self-mastery. His love and mercy manifested itself in the many miracles of healing He performed and the teachings He espoused. His complete obedience to His Father’s will became the perfect example for the world.

His apostle, known as John the Beloved, testified: “And there are many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” (John 21:25)

At the October [2014] General Conference, President Monson said: 
Of paramount importance, we have been provided with a perfect example to follow—even the example of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ—and we have been instructed to follow that example. Said the Savior Himself: “Come follow me.” “The works which ye have seen me do that shall ye also do.” He posed the question, “What manner of men ought ye to be?: And then He answered, “Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” “He marked the path and led the way.”
We read in Proverbs the admonition, “Ponder the path of thy feet.” As we do, we will have the faith, even the desire, to walk the path which Jesus walked. We will have no doubt that we are on a path which our Father would have us follow. The Savior’s example provides a framework for everything that we do, and His words provide an unfailing guide. His path will take us safely home.”
(Ensign, November 2014, p. 86, 88) 

And isn’t that what we want? To make it safely home?

The time came for Jesus to complete His mission and I’ve no doubt we watched anxiously as the appointed day came. He spent the evening with His Apostles, partaking of a meal, the Last Supper they would have together. He introduced a new ordinance to them. He broke bread, blessed it, and said “Take, eat; this is in remembrance of my body which I give a ransom for you.” Next He took a cup of wine, gave thanks, gave it to His Apostles to drink, and said, “This is in remembrance of my blood . . . , which is shed for as many as shall believe on my name.” 

After administering the sacrament to the Nephites, Jesus said: “He that eateth this bread eateth of my body to his soul; and he that drinketh of this wine drinketh of my blood to his soul; and his soul shall never hunger nor thirst, but shall be filled.” (Cheryl A. Esplin, Ensign, November 2014, p. 12,13)

We must have watched in wonderment at the simplicity of this ordinance and the wisdom that through this simple ordinance “Christ teaches us that the Spirit heals and renews our souls. The promised blessing of the sacrament is that we will ‘always have his Spirit to be with [us]. ‘” (Cheryl A. Esplin, Ensign, November 2014, p. 13)

But this was not the end and we must have been anxious as we watched Jesus announce that there was one who would betray Him. How unthinkable that must have seemed to us. But it had to be.

Jesus led his apostles to a garden and instructed them to “Pray that ye enter not into temptation.” Then He went further into the garden and knelt down to pray. As he labored in prayer we heard Him say “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” Did we hide our eyes in horror at the agony our brother was enduring? Did we lose faith and cry out “No, it’s too hard, he’ll never make it”? Did we pray fervently asking the Father to help? And then watch as an angel descended to strengthen Jesus in his suffering. Did our tears fall as we watched Him endure the absence of Our Father as He took upon Himself our sins, weaknesses, pains, and sorrows and “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground”?

Oh the relief we must have felt when that part in the Garden was over, only to watch as he was arrested and taken before wicked priests and leaders to be mocked and scourged and tormented in unlawful trials, then sentenced to death by crucifixion.

Luke records that “it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst.” (Luke 23:44-45) Matthew add the details that “the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;”(Matthew 27:51) It was finished. Our Brother completed the work He was sent to do. I imagine the joyful noise in Heaven was deafening! I believe we greeted Him with “shouts of acclamation” and cries of Hosanna! He broke the bonds of sin. He paid the debt to justice for us. He set us free! But there was still more. His spirit returned to earth to retrieve His mortal body in an act never before seen. He was resurrected, spirit and body joined together never to die again. Now the celebrations escalated. We could become like Our Heavenly Father with glorified, perfected bodies. What a debt of gratitude we owe our elder brother.

And for me that is the real reason for our Christmas festivities. Christmas celebrates the beginning of the mortal life of the One who would grow up to accomplish the mission of the Great Atoning Sacrifice.  Jesus is our eldest Brother, our Spiritual Father, our Exemplar, our Healer, our Lord and Redeemer.  We celebrate his mortal birth in gratitude for his condescension and mercy in coming to save us from the bonds of death and sin. He is the one who makes Our Father’s Plan of Happiness complete and operational in our lives.

With humble hearts full of thankfulness we should put Christ at the center of our lives, following His example and teachings. His perfection and strength is available to us through the power of the Atonement to help us obediently walk the gospel path he blazed.

Many celebrate Christmas with a birthday cake for Jesus and gifts of goals for self-improvement or service to others. Do you know what the best gift to give Jesus Christ is? I believe He told us Himself when he said to the Nephites gathered at the temple in Bountiful after His resurrection:
And behold, I have given you the law and the commandments of my Father, that ye shall believe in me, and that ye shall repent of your sins, and come unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Behold ye have the commandments before you and the law is fulfilled. Therefore come unto me and be ye saved.
(3 Ne 12: 19-20)

He gave us the incomparable gift of the Atonement, paying our debt for sin, and taking upon Himself our sorrows and pains. We can give Him a heart broken by humility, and a spirit sincerely remorseful of the sins we have committed. By offering up our pride and willfulness and covenanting to always remember Him and obey His commandments we can have His Spirit to be with us always. What a fitting Christmas gift for the king who rules over the Kingdom of God.

I know Our Heavenly Father lives; I’m so grateful for His Plan of Happiness; I know our Savior, Jesus Christ, lives; I have felt His loving arms around me succoring me in times of need. Oh how grateful I am for Him. He is the head of this great church and kingdom. We are led by His prophet, [at the time of this talk] Thomas S. Monson. I know the Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ, is true because I have read it and studied it and prayed about it. If you don’t know these things with surety also, make it your goal for the new year to study, pray about them, then act in obedience to the commandments so your testimony can grow and strengthen enough to carry you through the times in which we live so we all can make it safely back to our Heavenly home and parents.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.