Here it is, a few days before Christmas. I have been lighting the candles and saying the prayers and going about my duties and my days, meeting with people and reading but not taking as much time for intentional reflection as I'd like.
A couple of days ago I went to visit a shut-in, and I brought my old confirmation Bible along with me instead of the newer, shinier translation. It's still in pretty good shape, even though it is about 50 years old. And I read out of that old translation, about Caesar Augustus and swaddling cloths, and I remembered back to when I made it my mission to memorize Luke chapter 2, out of this very translation.
I think I was ten or eleven years old, and I don't remember why I took up the challenge to memorize these passages. It wasn't required for a Christmas pageant; my parents were not encouraging me to memorize scripture passages. I didn't go to a parochial school either. But somehow, one December I decided that this was what I would like to do: memorize as much of the Christmas story as I could.
Every day I would crunch through the snow on the way to school, and I would start out with chapter 2, verse 1, and see how far I could get. I didn't know who Quirinius was, or where Syria was, and I didn't know that the word "Caesar" meant "Emperor", but I plowed through the verses, understanding more or less, getting a little farther every day.
"In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. this was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria."
I think I may have made it all the way to verse 14, in the end. Every day I walked and recited, I recited and walked. It was December.
I suppose it was my Advent discipline, although I would not have said so at the time. At the time, I don't think I knew what an Advent discipline was. And I'm not sure that the process of memorization itself yielded any special insights into the scriptures -- at least not at the time.
I think back to that year. I have been a pastor now for twenty-five years. At the time I tried to memorize the Christmas story I had no idea how my life would turn out. I had not an inkling that I would be doing this work, that I would be reciting the story myself every single year.
A few years ago, in another congregation, I was visiting a shut-in just a few days before Christmas. He was a retired pastor who had served our congregation. Recently he had had a stroke, and this hearty active man was now in a nursing home, barely able to speak.
I came with communion and the Christmas story. His wife joined us. She was there every day, all day, just staying with him. And when I began to read from Luke chapter 2, he started saying the words along with me.
Every once in awhile he would fade out, but he always came back strongly on three words, "in a manger". And while we were speaking together, reciting together, I noticed that those three words, "in a manger" -- were repeated three times in that one chapter. How could I have been reading those words all these years and not noticed this.
There is so much in the Christmas story -- the shepherds and the angels, the long journey to Bethlehem, "Glory to God in the highest!" And in the middle of it all is the manger. The child is lying in a manger.
This is the sign. This is the sign of Christmas. It is the manger that carries the child.
All those years ago, I trudged up and down the streets, and I memorized the words, not knowing where the words really led. And then one day, many years later, they led to the manger. The lowly place.
And the words became food: the bread of life. In a manger.