Today is the 5th day of Christmas. In our culture and in our day the Christmas celebrations are largely finished by the end of Boxing Day, but that is not the case in many parts of the world. In parts of Central America, for example, rather than Father Christmas bringing presents on Christmas Eve, it is the Three Wise Men who bring them on 12th Night, with the following day, Epiphany, marking the final day of the celebrations. I like that tradition as a constant reminder of the gifts being linked to the scriptural account of our Saviour’s birth.
In contrast, for most of us the most memorable thing about the 12 days of Christmas is the oft-sung Christmas song of the same name. In that song, of course, the fifth day, today, brings a gift of 5 gold rings. By pure coincidence, I suspect, this is the one gift in the song that brings with it some appropriate spiritual symbolism: gold being one of the gifts brought by the wise men, and rings symbolising the eternal nature of the gifts brought by the Son of God, whose birth we celebrate.
Sadly, too many in our society today view precious metals, spices and ointments as items to be highly desired and sought for personal adornment; and at this Christmas time our modern equivalents of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh are more likely to be found in the jewellers, beauty counters and fashion boutiques of the cathedrals of contemporary shopping centres than as ways to honour, worship and serve Christ, whose desire is to make us all eternally resplendent. The irony of our society’s self-defeating efforts would be funny if it were not so tragic. But those in the great and spacious building seen in Lehi’s vision have always stood opposed to the Tree of Life, oblivious to the absence of foundations which make its fall both inevitable and devastating.
Which brings us to another symbol of this Christmas season – the Christmas tree. Evergreen, and covered in lights, fruit-shaped baubles, and often something literally edible, it reminds us of the Tree in Lehi’s vision whose fruit was white beyond all description, which was delicious to the soul, and which symbolised the Love of God, as manifested through His Only Begotten Son. Particularly at this Christmas time, we should remember that when Nephi asked the angel for the meaning of the Tree he saw, he was shown in vision the virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus in her arms.
During the Christmas season I like to wear a small badge on my suit jacket. It is a picture of a Father Christmas kneeling at the manger, and with the well-known saying “Jesus is the Reason for the Season”. Although I suspect that most Christians succumb at least a little to the commercial aspects of Christmas, I am sure that we also remember the reason for the season, that we teach it to our children, and that we feel the love of God more fully as we do so.
Of course, miraculous though it was, the Saviour’s mission did not end with His birth.
“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.… He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5).
After quoting this passage from Isaiah, President Gordon B Hinckley said:
“This is the wondrous and true story of Christmas. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem of Judea is preface. The three-year ministry of the Master is prologue. The magnificent substance of the story is His sacrifice, the totally selfless act of dying in pain on the cross of Calvary to atone for the sins of all of us.
“The epilogue is the miracle of the Resurrection, bringing the assurance that, “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).
“There would be no Christmas if there had not been Easter. The babe Jesus of Bethlehem would be but another baby without the redeeming Christ of Gethsemane and Calvary, and the triumphant fact of the Resurrection.” (The Wondrous and True Story of Christmas, December 2000 Ensign)
When you and I one day kneel before Jesus, it will not be at the side of His manger, but rather at the feet of the resurrected, glorified Christ, whose feet will still bear the marks of His sacrifice for us. Our experience will be less like that of the wise men, and more like that of the Nephites, who, “…went forth, and thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet… and did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety, that it was he, of whom it was written by the prophets, that should come.” (3 Nephi 11:15)
This passage of scripture comes from the Book of Mormon at the time when the Saviour visited them after His resurrection. There is, however, a more powerful lesson for us to learn in this passage, when it is compared with another passage just a few chapters later. For many in the multitude, there would be two opportunities to spend some intimate one-to-one time with the resurrected Christ on this day. The passage I just quoted is the first; the second opportunity came late in the day when He healed those who were sick among them.
Christ could have easily healed every one of the people when they went to Him the first time, but He chose not to. As I have pondered why the Saviour acted in this way, and why it is recorded as such in our scriptures, I have come to believe that at least one reason is for what it teaches us about two distinct gospel principles, faith and hope.
In the scriptures, faith always precedes hope. As the scriptural definition of hope is different from the way we use it in our daily lives, this definition from the LDS Church website is useful:
“The word hope is sometimes misunderstood. In our everyday language, the word often has a hint of uncertainty. For example, we may say that we hope for a change in the weather or a visit from a friend. In the language of the gospel, however, the word hope is sure, unwavering, and active…. Hope is the confident expectation of and longing for the promised blessings of righteousness.” (LDS web-site)
With this definition in mind it is possible for us to have faith, but not have hope. For example, an individual may firmly believe that Jesus Christ atoned for all mankind, and that He lives today, but also believe – despite trying to live a righteous life – that he or she will not be eligible for many of the promised blessings of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. It is like saying, “I believe in the universality of the Atonement – but don’t think it will really apply to me.” To have faith without sufficient hope is a miserable existence, and it is not what the Lord intends for us. Nephi described our need to press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, and a “perfect brightness of hope” (2 Nephi 31:20). Hope brings brightness.
That is not to say that if we have hope our trials will magically disappear, or that we will somehow manage to hold silly grins on our faces when the thorns and thistles of mortality sting us as they must. But hope will help us endure these times more valiantly, our sorrows untainted with despair. As Elder Neal A Maxwell said, “Daily hope is vital, since the Winter Quarters of our lives are not immediately adjacent to our promised land either. An arduous trek still awaits, but hope spurs the weary disciples on.” (Brightness of Hope, Nov 1994 Ensign)
I love the image of hope being bright, and it returns us to the Christmas story. When Christ was born, he chose to come during the night-time – when it was dark. But His coming brought light, for a new star shone; not bright enough to dispel the darkness, but certainly sufficient to guide wise men through the darkness to the Lord’s side. We don’t know how long the wise men journeyed, but certainly there were bright days and dark nights among their travels. But no matter how dark, the star guided them. Christ brings light, and when we have hope in Him, though life’s journey contains both dark times and light times, we not only have a light to follow, but confidence in what awaits us at the destination.
And with that we return to the story in the Book of Mormon of the Saviour’s visit, and His two separate invitations for individuals to come to Him.
The Saviour’s first invitation to the multitude was for the purpose of establishing faith. “Arise and come forth unto me” he said, “…that ye may know that I…have been slain for the sins of the world.” (3 Nephi 11:14) The record tells us that the people went forth one by one, until all 2,500 had individually witnessed for themselves. Much has been written about the many hours this must have taken.
It would have been easy for one who was ill in some way – whether a visible illness or not – to have been healed at the same time. I wonder whether some had silently wished, or even prayed, that He would heal them when they approached Him. I can imagine parents of a sick child taking their loved one to Him so that their little one could also see and touch their Redeemer, perhaps wishing their child healed as they touched Him. They all returned to the multitude with a stronger faith, but still just as ill.
I don’t suppose any of them expected another opportunity to spend time with Him, and with the best opportunity for healing now past, I suppose they would be excitedly anticipating the spiritual feast they would receive through the remainder of His visit, while expecting to remain physically unchanged.
This would all change, however, at the end of this most remarkable of days.
His second invitation to the multitude commenced differently from the first. The first time, He simply invited them to come to Him so that they might “know”. This second time, He commenced by saying, “My bowels are filled with compassion towards you.” (3 Nephi 17:6). I don’t suppose the Saviour felt any less compassion towards the people at the start of the day, but it is instructive I think that He chose to vocalise these feelings this time. We can know of the reality of the Atonement, and that Christ lives today without necessarily feeling His great love for us. But for you and me to have a perfect brightness of hope, it is essential that we feel the Saviour’s compassion for us personally. While the Atonement is vast in its scope, it is applied personally – one heart at a time. If Christ were physically present with us today, I believe the one thing we would feel above all else is the boundless love He has for each of us personally.
Which leads to the next point. The Saviour here could have healed all of the people en masse, from a distance. He had healed from distance during His mortal ministry so He was certainly capable of doing so, but He chose not to. “Have ye any sick among you?” He asked. As a parent I am naturally drawn to imagining the parents of a child who was either physically or mentally impaired; who imagined their child would never play as other children, would never grow up and experience the things “normal” children do. But through war and natural disaster there would have been old and young, male and female, with “sickness” covering every imaginable form. But to be certain, He elaborates, “Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner?”
Now if I am there as a parent of one who is afflicted in any manner, I can tell you I will now be listening very closely – if possible even more closely than I have been listening all day, because now He is talking specifically about someone I love dearly. He then says, “Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy.”
It is worth noting too that the Saviour didn’t place any limits on who could come to Him. Although the most wicked amongst the Nephites had been destroyed in the storms that accompanied the Saviour’s death a year earlier, amongst those who remained there was no doubt a wide range of spirituality and gospel understanding. He didn’t say that only those with a certain percentage of attendance at worship meetings should come forth. He didn’t say only those who were diligent in their prayers, or who had a sound understanding of gospel doctrines should come. He didn’t ask for the spiritual or ecclesiastical leaders to come first. He invited all to come to Him, and He healed them all. There is never a time when He doesn’t want you or me to come to Him. No matter our life situation; no matter the condition of our testimony; no matter how well we have served Him, He nonetheless asks us to come to Him, to be healed of any and of all infirmities.
And now for the second main difference between His invitation earlier in the day and this second invitation to come to Him. After the multitude had been to Him one by one the first time, they all cried Hosanna, proclaiming their testimonies. This second time, their response is recorded that, “…they did all, both they who had been healed and they who were whole, bow down at his feet, and did worship him; and as many as could come for the multitude did kiss his feet, insomuch that they did bathe his feet with their tears.” (3 Nephi 17:6-10)
The first time each person had personally gained a witness of the reality of the Atonement. This second time, each had personally felt its power, and the accompanying love that Christ felt for each individual.
The lesson from this is not that if we have sufficient faith and hope that we will be healed from any and all afflictions immediately, but rather that the Lord’s compassion for us individually is beyond our comprehension, and because of His atoning sacrifice we can Hope for – have a confident expectation of and longing for – spiritual healing in this life, and all of the promised blessings of righteousness in eternity. The Lord is mindful of you.
Just as the star guided the wise men through dark nights to the place where the small boy Jesus lived, so too our Hope in Him can be bright in our own lives.
You may have come across the recent song by a Christian group Cloverton, who have rewritten the words to the well-known song “Hallelujah” to make it Christmas themed. You can watch the video here. One thing I like about the lyrics are that the last verse relates His birth to the atoning sacrifice He would perform – linking Christmas and Easter. I quote the lyrics below, but have have added a final verse which I think captures the principle of Hope:
I’ve heard about this baby boy
Who’s come to earth to bring us joy
And I just want to sing this song to you
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
With every breath I’m singing Hallelujah
A couple came to Bethlehem
Expecting child, they searched the inn
To find a place for You were coming soon
There was no room for them to stay
So in a manger filled with hay
God’s only Son was born, oh Hallelujah
The shepherds left their flocks by night
To see this baby wrapped in light
A host of angels led them all to You
It was just as the angels said
You’ll find Him in a manger bed
Immanuel and Savior, Hallelujah
A star shown bright up in the east
To Bethlehem, the wisemen three
Came many miles and journeyed long for You
And to the place at which You were
Their frankincense and gold and myrrh
They gave to You and cried out Hallelujah
I know You came to rescue me
This baby boy would grow to be
A man and one day die for me and you
My sins would drive the nails in You
That rugged cross was my cross, too
Still every breath You drew was Hallelujah
You chose to suffer mind and heart
Atoning for my every part
My pains and sorrows borne by You for love
And now You stand with outstretched arms
To save me from all worldly harms
I’ll trust in You forever Hallelujah
(First 5 verses by Cloverton, 6th Verse by J Collyer)
May we each see and feel the light that comes from Christ’s mission in our lives, that we too may obtain that perfect brightness of hope. Surely that is the ultimate story of Christmas.