“The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey” by Debbie McClarin

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned….For to us a Child is born, to us a Son is given…and He will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:2,6) (NIV, NKJV).

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey became a favorite almost immediately.  Maybe it was because it was introduced to me by the author herself. Susan Wojciechowski visited the school where I was teaching.  A former librarian in the Rochester area, she had a wonderful backstory to this amazing children’s book.  But, let me say, it is not just for children.  Susan wanted to write a story about the light of Christmas but to come at it from a unique perspective.  Sitting at her computer, God gave her the inspiration that she needed.  She shared that she sat there, typing away, and without stopping wrote the whole story.  This story did not even need editing to go to publication (or at least very little!).  It was truly a Christmas gift from God to her and then to the countless others that have read it.  This backstory and the story itself have been gifts to me, and I have given this book as a gift numerous times.

Jonathan Toomey, an excellent woodcarver, is known as Mr. Gloomy because of his sadness and the distance he puts between people.  He especially does not like Christmas.  Thomas and his mother, the widow McDowell, enter the story when they want him to carve a nativity scene.  Their connection grows as he carves each figure.  You will have to read the story to see how it all plays out!

For me, it is a story of how God can change our darkness into light.  My story is not the same as Mr. Toomey’s or the widow McDowell and Thomas,’ but just the same, I experience times of darkness, grief, and loneliness like most people do.  I love how the author interwove the Christmas story into the characters’ lives.  It reminds me that the coming of Jesus means that we can be transformed.  I find that the illustrations are also instrumental in bringing this meaning to my heart.  Just as in this story, transformation is not always immediate.  Jonathan Toomey was experiencing the message of Christmas through his carving of the figures along with the kindnesses of the widow and Thomas.  Whenever I read this story, especially out loud, I get choked up.  It always touches something deep inside of me reminding me of Jesus’ love and light. 

It has also been a gift to me to grow in understanding of others’ darkness and brokenness, especially as it relates to deep grief.  Although each and every person’s experience is different, this story teaches me to remember that grieving is a process.  It can’t be forced or put on a timetable.  The healing can fluctuate from growth back to despair and then more growth.  Small kindnesses and spending time with someone can help bring bits of light to their darkness, each time allowing the light of Jesus to do a healing work.  But as in this story, it is God’s love through Jesus that ultimately brings the deepest healing. 

Many times when friends and family had young children, I gave the families this book.  Often I would read it out loud to them.  My hope has always been that it would be a spiritual gift to them along with the actual physical book.  Maybe at that point they were too young to fully grasp some of the things that I shared above, but I believe that they still connected to the unique way of looking at the Nativity scene as described while Mr. Toomey was carving the figures.  Kids love animals and within this story we can see things from their perspective.  The boy, Thomas, is important to the meaning of this story, so again they have a point to connect to.  Sometimes a familiar story can be gone over quickly.  This story helps us to stop and think about Jesus’ birth in a different way.

When I have given this book to people, I include this note below and explain how I met the author at my school. Knowing how an author wrote a story increases its meaning and connection.  I think it expresses my thoughts behind the gift:

Mrs. Wojciechowski shared that she barely recalls writing this book because it was inspired by God; the words just flowed out of her without her having to think about them.  Although publishers always have the authors make many, many changes, this time they didn’t have her make hardly any at all.  This is very unusual.  She also told us that she had been wanting to write a Christmas story, not one about Mary and Joseph specifically, but a story about how Jesus came to make a difference.  You will notice that in the pictures at the beginning of the story Mr. Toomey is in the darkness.  At the end of the story he is pictured in brilliant light.  Mrs. Wojciechowski wanted her story to remind us that Jesus came to be the Light of the World for us.  You will notice many other changes as well as she weaves the story of Christmas into her characters’ lives.  I hope that you will read this book many times and that it will become one of your favorites.  Learn from it and remember that Jesus is here to help you.  I pray that you will show kindness to others especially when they are sad.

I always love stories where characters go through inner transformation.  Think about classics like A Christmas Carol and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  While all three of these stories are very different, in each one the characters’ hearts are changed.  Their darkness is turned into light.  Their sorrow is turned into joy. Their loneliness is turned into connection.  I hope you will read The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey and experience how Mr. Toomey’s life went from darkness to light because of God’s love.

“In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5) (NIV).

“A Shepherd’s Tale” by Debbie McClarin

I have always loved sheep. I’m not really sure why, but since childhood I have been intrigued by them. As my family would walk along country paths, I would always be the one lagging behind because I was watching the sheep, talking to them, and if there was a brave one or two, scratching them behind their ears. Maybe it was the picture in my mind of King David as a boy shepherd. What young Jewish boy doesn’t have David as his hero, slaying predators and then Goliath?! “The Lord is my shepherd. The Lord is my shepherd. The Lord is my shepherd.” This makes for a good cadence for walking when young feet and legs are getting tired. “Are we almost there yet?” “He leads me on paths of righteousness. He leads me on paths of righteousness. He leads me on paths of righteousness.” I keep moving, step by step. The path is long, dusty, and rocky. But, sometimes when I am tempted to do wrong…I think, He leads me on paths of righteousness, and it helps me to make a much better choice.

At a young age it was determined that I would follow in my father’s footsteps and become a priest.  This decision really was a joy to me as I have always wanted to serve Yahweh God.  I was part-way through the training by the rabbis and priests when I found out that there were special priests who were shepherds for the Passover lambs.*  My heart leapt and I sought out how I could follow this path.  My love for and knowledge of sheep helped to procure me this position.  And, that is how I ended up being in that field on that most holy of nights. 

The flocks of Passover lambs are the only herds of sheep that do not have to go out into the wilderness.  We were not too far from Bethlehem.  Taking care of the lambs brought me great delight.  There was a sense of constant vigilance because for a lamb to be accepted as a Passover sacrifice, it must be free from any injury, defect, or blemish.  I loved watching over these precious creatures.  While it did pain me to think that most of them would be sacrificed to atone for our sins, it was part of who I was as a young Jewish man.  All my life we had celebrated Passover, remembering that the Angel of Death passed over any Jewish household that had the blood of a perfect lamb spread along its door frame.  There was great rejoicing every year in remembering God’s miraculous deliverance of the Israelites from the cruel enslavement of the Egyptians.

These thoughts and more often went through my mind as we guarded and cared for these lambs destined to provide the Passover sacrifice.   That particular night it was crisp and clear, maybe a little colder than usual.  The stars were definitely bright, and as it was my turn to be in the Migdal Tower watching over the sheep and lambs from up above.  Tradition stated that the Messiah would come from the “tower of the flock.”  I thought of that every time it was my turn to watch from up high in the tower.  What did it really mean?  So many years, and still no Messiah.  Obediently, we continued to follow the Jewish traditions and celebrate the yearly feasts, never losing hope that one day He would come.

Sometimes the nights seemed extra long and I would get sleepy.  This night, however, was different.  I could never find the words to describe the sense of electricity in the air, but even the sheep seemed to feel it.  They wouldn’t settle down, moving from place to place instead of sleeping, and the repeated “baa baa” could be heard instead of the gentle sound of their sleeping breaths.  I kept watching for intruders.  Were there wolves nearby?  Was there a storm brewing somewhere despite the clear sky?  Could they hear voices somewhere that we could not hear?  “Just keep watching over them,” was the voice I heard from God in my mind.

My eyes were roaming back and forth over the expanse of the field.  As I turned to gaze over the field once again, there was an indistinguishable glow, wait, no, it was not a glow, it was a brilliant light!  I shouted down to my fellow shepherds from my place in the tower, “What is that amazing light?” I admit it; I was a bit frightened!  Then I heard the words, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.  For there is born to you today in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”*  I had to stop and think.   Could I really be hearing an angel announcing the coming of the Christ, the Messiah?  But the angel continued to speak, and I had to listen. “And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

Just when I realized I had been holding my breath that whole time the angel was speaking and began to fill my lungs back up with the night air, that majestic angel was joined by a whole multitude of angels!  I mean, there was no chance of us ever counting how many, even if all of us shepherds worked together to do so.  It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.  Their words of praise filled the air and every cell of our bodies.  “Glory to God in the highest!  And on earth peace, goodwill to those on whom His favor rests.”

I wanted to shout praises along with them.  I wanted to bow down in humble reverence, but that was to come just a while later.  We began saying to each other, “Now, we have to go now, right now, to see this baby Savior!”  I don’t think we ever ran that fast in our lives.  Somehow in our exuberance we found the humble place where Joseph and Mary and the precious newborn baby were.   Then the time for humble reverence came.  There He was; the most beautiful baby that I ever saw.   How could it be that He was wrapped in swaddling cloths?  They were the very same cloths we used to protect the Passover lambs.

Tears began to roll down my cheeks.  I gazed at this baby, this perfect baby.  He was a baby with no blemish, injury, or defect—the perfect Passover Lamb.  Our Messiah.  God had sent the Messiah in the form of a baby.  Our Savior.  My Savior.   We could not contain ourselves, and yet after a time we left, and all along the way we praised God and told the story to whoever would listen.  “For there is born today, for you, a Savior who is Christ the Lord!  Glory to God!”

*Scripture passages/references: Psalm 23: 1,3; Luke 2: 4-17; Exodus 11, 12 (NKJV/NIV)

*Historical information:  https://steppesoffaith.medium.com/the-real-truth-about-the-shepherds-on-that-first-christmas-night-c32296181a27

Challenges:

Read through any of the above passages and put yourself into the narrative.  What do you hear?  See? Smell?  What emotions are flowing through you?

What part of the story above most resonates with you?  What might God be trying to say to you or wanting to do in your life this Christmas season? 

Like the shepherds, go and share the good news of Jesus’ birth!

“O Holy Night” by Debbie McClarin

Holy. Set apart. Sanctified for God’s purposes. This is how I have always heard “holy” defined. That night when Jesus was born was truly a holy night. It was like no other night before it or after it. There in the sky was a miraculous star shining over the town of Bethlehem. An angel proclaimed to lowly shepherds, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you today in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” Then angels burst forth from heaven shouting, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests” (Luke 2:10, 14) (NKJV). These words were proclamations that God had come to earth in the form of a tiny baby. The baby Jesus was sanctified for God’s purposes. “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel,” which means God is with us (Matthew 1:23 and Isaiah 7:14) (NIV). Truly it was the holiest night.

But what about the song, “O, Holy Night”?  Some interesting facts* are that it was written as a poem by a man who was not a church-goer, at the request of the local French Catholic priest.  Music was added to the poem by a Jewish man. “O, Holy Night” was the first song ever broadcast over the airwaves.  An assistant to Thomas Edison read the words from Luke chapter 2, and then played this song on his violin, all to the wonder and astonishment of anyone who heard it.  The words we sing now are changed somewhat from the original, but what remains the same is the song’s popularity and spiritual depth.

Reading about the history of its creation makes me even more appreciative of the song.  God can use anyone!  You, or I, do not have to be a perfect Christian person to do something amazing for God!  That is exciting to me! 

I have heard this song sung many times over the years.  My favorite time to hear it is at a Christmas Eve service when, no matter how many times I’ve heard it, it still brings tears to my eyes and shivers to my body.  It is beautiful as a solo, but I love when the congregation gets to sing it!  When the music is soothing and peaceful, I feel calm.  When it begins to crescendo, my spirit also soars!  When we get to the powerful words of “Fall on your knees, O hear the angels voices, O night divine, O night when Christ was born…” I feel like we should all be on our knees worshiping the baby Jesus just as the shepherds did that night. 

There are some words in this song that stirred up some controversy back in the 1800s, and maybe those issues are still a sticking point today. Did you notice the phrase, “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother, And in His name all oppression shall cease”? This did not sit well with some folks during that time. I find this stanza meaningful for several reasons. First and foremost is because Jesus loves everyone no matter their color or their role in life. It breaks His heart to see people in slavery or any kind of bondage. He does not want people to be in shackles whether it was in the first century, the 1600’s, or today. Yes, today. Slavery abounds. It is in different forms than the days of cotton or tobacco plantations, but it still exists. The United States is not exempt. These words are meant for freedom!

I think I connect with this section for several reasons. Here in Rochester, New York where I live, there were important happenings in regards to abolition in the 1800s. Frederick Douglass,** a former slave who became a strong abolitionist speaking and writing tirelessly to gain freedom and rights for other slaves and free persons of color, lived and worked in Rochester for part of his life. There is a New York State historical marker along the north end of the Genesee River, not too far from my home, that states that it was the final ‘stop’ of the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman’s house is about two hours from Rochester. The western NY area is the birthplace of the Free Methodist denomination. Benjamin Titus Roberts wanted everyone to be able to worship freely and equally no matter what color or socioeconomic status they were. He was an abolitionist as well. These and other matters led him and a group of people to start the Free Methodist denomination, the first church being in Albion, NY. The Free Methodist Church today continues to fight against slavery in the Set Free Movement. These parts of history that surround me physically and historically create greater meaning for this part of the song.

Part two of the above quotation is, “And in His name all oppression shall cease.”  We know that oppression continues today.  It will continue until we are in heaven.  But—there is good news!  Jesus, through His death and resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit, can break chains and oppression that we experience.  People are set free from addictions, depression, and anxiety.  Difficult situations can be remedied or improved.  Relationships can be restored.  Work places can become areas where people are empowered not degraded.  Ethnic differences can be embraced rather than causing division.  Yes, these types of oppression and more can be released with prayer, but they are also released with praise to Jesus, our Savior. “He knows our need, to our weakness He’s no stranger….let all within us praise His holy name….Christ is the Lord, O praise His name forever…” 

O, what a holy night.  Thank You Jesus for coming to be with us.

Challenge:

  • Go to YouTube, Spotify, etc., and listen to several versions of this Christmas hymn. Really listen to the words. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElJ0fiD0lkc)
  • Notice where in the song you feel moved. What is God saying to you? Is there a place within you that He wants to set free?
  • What are some things you can do this year to focus on the holiness of the Christmas season?

https://christiantoday.com.au/news/four-things-you-didnt-know-about-o-holy-night.html

https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/occasions/christmas/o-holy-night-original-lyrics-composer-recordings/

https://www.beliefnet.com/entertainment/movies/the-nativity-story/the-amazing-story-of-o-holy-night.aspx

Frederick Douglass statue near the sign signifying the last stop of the Underground Railroad. Rochester, NY

O Holy Night image: currentcatalog.com

ADVENT – DAY 2 “Expecting Jesus” by Debbie McClarin

Advent is a time of anticipation, preparation, and expectation. What are some things that you look forward to each year as you prepare for Christmas, and what are some things you would suggest that we all do in anticipation of Christ’s coming again?

Welcome to Week #1 of Advent Reflections.  In all honesty, I struggled to get this blog started.  But, I just started writing, and got out some of my frustration, and then deleted it!  I believe God then gave me the words to write.  I hope you are blessed by what He gave me to share.

Growing up, there were a lot of fun Christmas activities.  I always liked helping my mom decorate the Christmas tree.  There were some favorite ornaments that I liked to hang.  Our tree was never ‘finished’ because my mom would always be rearranging the ornaments, getting it to be just-right.  I do that now to some extent, but I like to say that it’s done!   Each ornament has a story.  I enjoyed making cut-out Christmas cookies, especially the decorating part (and the eating of the cookies).  My grandparents usually came over on Christmas Eve, which meant that we got to open their gifts.  Yay!  My other grandma often stayed overnight, so she was with us first thing in the morning.

I think I was in high school before we started going to a Christmas Eve service.  My favorite service was at our little, very old but beautiful, church up on the corner close to our house.  At the end of the service, when it was time for the candle-lighting, we moved into a circle around the perimeter of the sanctuary.  The only light was the glow of the candles reflecting on the stained-glass windows. We sang a song—probably “Silent Night”—and I could see all the faces of my church family.  I was filled with warmth and awe. There was something so impactful about that moment that it is etched into my memory.  It was also at that church that I first heard about Advent and got to participate in some of those traditions, like making Chrismon ornaments and learning the meaning behind the symbols. I like the time of preparation.  Oh, yeah, and Christmas caroling with cookies afterward!

Fast-forward to adult years.  Christmas Eve service is still one of my favorite aspects of the season.  After a service of Scripture readings, congregational carol singing, and special music, it is the time for candle-lighting.  Starting from the front, the flame is passed from person to person while we are singing “Silent Night.”  The sanctuary lights are dimmed and candlelight glows brightly but warmly.  As the last lines of the song are completed, and the candle flames have reached the back of the sanctuary, the first chords of “Joy to the World” begin.  “The Lord has come!”  The excitement builds for those of us who know what comes next.  As we get to the last verse, “He rules the world with truth and grace….” everyone raises their candle high into the air.  The light in the sanctuary glows even brighter.  It’s Christmas now!  I don’t think I have ever gotten through those moments without shedding a few tears because it is so moving and beautiful. 

When I was working as a teacher, I always enjoyed the last few days before vacation.  Most times the teachers did not give a lot of work that week, we got the kids caught up on back assignments, and it was a time to just enjoy them as people.  I was able to do some fun holiday activities, with an educational twist, that were a lot of fun.  We did holiday puzzles and learned about Christmas customs around the world.  Even now I sometimes hear about a cultural tradition and remember that I learned it when teaching it to my students.  Earlier in my career, all the teachers would wear Christmas sweaters, shirts, ties, etc.  Then it changed into “ugly” sweaters, but it was still fun.  I loved when we did Secret Santa exchanges. 

In recent years, on Christmas day, I have gone to some friends’ house for a small gathering of delicious brunch and good company.  Then I head out for my family’s get-together.  We have rotated who hosts it, which is a good idea!  A few years back we decided to not spend so much time preparing food and started doing cheese/crackers, cookies, fruit, breads, etc.  People can eat whenever they want.  This has worked out really well.  And of course, opening presents.  When my nephews and niece were little, their gifts were a surprise.  Then we moved into me taking them out shopping and they could pick where they wanted to go for lunch or dinner.  I still buy some surprise gifts!  This was a great time for one-one conversation and learning about stores I had not frequented before! 

Christmas music, decorating the tree, shopping for gifts, and wrapping presents are all fun, but in all reality, sometimes it is overwhelming, especially when I was working.  There were many times that I was finishing wrapping at the last minute even though every year I got an early start.  Some years I have chosen to not put up my tree and only do limited decorating.  That usually comes with mixed feelings, but it is a good way to have more energy to focus on what matters relationally and spiritually.

I am very aware of people who struggle at this time of year.  People have family or personal issues that are heightened during this time.  Depression and anxiety increase.  For some it is the first Christmas since someone passed away.  Maybe the anniversary or memory of a death, a divorce, or a falling out happens during the Christmas season.  Rooms filled with colorful decorations might also be filled with tensions and hurtful words.  There might be a mixture of joy and pain, fun and stress—that is probably the reality for the majority of people.

More than any other time of year there are high expectations which are hard to live up to.  More than any other time the reality that life is not exactly what was expected is glaring you and me in the face.  But, more than any other time of the year, there is the birth of hope. 

There is the birth of Jesus!  “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all people!  For there is born to you this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!” (Luke 2:10-11) (NKJV).  “And you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins…they shall call His name Immanuel…God with us” (Matthew 1:21, 23) (NKJV).  This is the expectation that God wants us to have.  His people had been waiting for centuries in expectation for the coming of the Messiah, Jesus the Savior.  He has come!  We can expect Him to save us from our sins.  We can expect Him to be with us.  It is promised.  It really does not matter if the tree is up or if the presents are all wrapped perfectly (or not at all) or if our lives do not look like a beautiful Christmas card. 

This is a season to spend time in the presence of Jesus.  Allow Him to heal your hurts and restore your soul (see Psalm 23).  Try writing a letter to Jesus telling Him about your struggles.  Stop in the midst of the busyness to see the faces of those around you—look into their eyes.  Hear their hearts, not just their words.  Love them with God’s love and let them love you.  As you look at the Christmas tree or wrap presents, name your blessings and give God thanks.  Listen, really listen, to the words of Christian Christmas songs. Read the Christmas story in the Bible.  Read it again.  What parts stand out to you?  What might God be saying to you in those passages?  Find a Bible or book study that speaks to your heart.

Maybe you have happy Christmas memories, maybe you don’t. Maybe this year’s celebrations are filled with happy expectations, maybe they aren’t. No matter what the situation, Jesus is still your Savior. He loves you. He was born for you. He is still God with you.


REFLECTION QUESTIONS…

When you decorate for Christmas do you set aside a specific time to do it all or are you always adding more throughout the month?

With many restrictions this year due to COVID in what ways do you plan to observe Advent and Christmas Eve if Candlelight Services and Small Group Gatherings are not an option?

What are some ways we can reach out in love to those who may be experiencing grief or hardship this Christmas? If you yourself have been in that position in the past what were some positive things that others did to show you that they cared?


This is meant to be an interactive blog so please share some of your responses with us.