The Most Desirable Thing

Dear Will:

We have in our home over 20 different nativity displays, ranging from an ornate, elaborate set of figures that covers an entire table to one crèche so small it can fit in your hand, so simple that it is nothing more than a tiny, nest-like manger adorned with a little yellow star. It’s gotten to the point that we no longer have space sufficient to display them all at one time, and yet we continue to add to our collection.

Now you might reasonably ask: “Watkins, why this jubilee?” But if you sat in our living room and saw this collection from various nations around the world, I think you’d start to understand. In fact, if you’ve attended the Orange Stake’s Community Christmas Celebration and enjoyed its annual array of stables and wise men and angels of all varieties, you might not even ask the question.

Still, it’s interesting to note that of all the noteworthy events in the life of the Savior of mankind, it is His birth that gets especial focus and attention. We do not typically build displays of the marriage in Cana or of the Sermon on the Mount. We don’t make figurines depicting the healing of the lepers or the transfiguration or the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Even on Easter we do not, as a rule, assemble a living room tableau representing His rising from the tomb on the third day. And yet all around the world, the crèche has come to be an essential focal point of faith and celebration. Why is that?

I think we start to find the answer to that question in a story from the Book of Mormon. Lehi, a man of some renown in the city of Jerusalem, was, by his own admission, a “visionary man.” One night he dreamed a dream, allegorical by nature and profound in its implications. It depicted the journey of his family and countless others as they made their way uncertainly along a path, some finding their way to destruction and others to profound happiness at the foot of a marvelous tree. So moved was he by the vision and what it seemed to suggest about the future of his children in particular, that he shared it with his family with great emotion and concern.

One of his four sons at the time, Nephi by name, was profoundly affected by Lehi’s account and wanted to see the vision for himself. Now the record does not tell us what steps Nephi had to take to obtain that blessing, but we can assume that his quest included a fair amount of fasting and prayer coupled with private devotion and purification. Eventually, Nephi was granted the desires of his heart.

The vision did not unfold to Nephi in the same way it had to his father. I read now from Nephi’s own account in the 11th chapter of 1 Nephi:

8 And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me: Look! And I looked and beheld a tree; and it was like unto the tree which my father had seen; and the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.

9 And it came to pass after I had seen the tree, I said unto the Spirit: I behold thou hast shown unto me the tree which is precious above all.

10 And he said unto me: What desirest thou?

11 And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof. . . .

Now this is key. The question is, how best to explain the meaning of that tree to Nephi. The Spirit could have merely told Nephi the answer to his question, but it’s clear that words alone could not convey what the tree represented. So instead, Nephi received another vision to help him understand what this precious tree was meant to depict, and an angel was sent to help him piece it all together. Nephi continues:

13 . . . I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white.

14 And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?

15 And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins. . . .

18 And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.

19 And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look!

20 And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.

21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!  . . .

Now remember, this vision of Mary and the baby Jesus is the answer to Nephi’s question about the meaning of the tree. So to be sure he understood, the angel then repeated Nephi’s original question:

21 . . .Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?

22 And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.

The implication is this: If you want someone to understand what the love of God is, perhaps the best way to do that is to show them the Virgin Mother with the Christ child in her arms.

Think for a moment of that scene, which you yourself have seen depicted hundreds of times before—in film, in tabletop display, and in any number of live reenactments from ward Christmas parties to private family programs with the children arrayed in bathrobes and bedsheets. What is it about this scene—this mother and baby in particular—that so effectively and so profoundly evokes the love of God?

Surely it begins with the ineffable bond between mother and child. Although we might struggle to conceive of God in all His glory, and although our mortal limitations may make it hard for us to imagine the depth and breadth of the love He has for His children, we do catch a glimmer of that love when a mother brings a newborn into this world. That direct partnership with God may in fact be the closest any of us can come to seeing the face of God in this life—so surely the emotions stirred by birth help us to feel things we can feel in no other way. Certainly maternity and eternity are very closely linked. The love of God is revealed thereby.

More than that, even, the Nativity represents what the angel referred to as “the condescension of God”—His coming down to us, disregarding His superior station to be with us. In the words of Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14)—which, we’re told, can be interpreted as “God with us.”

I’m reminded of an experience from the Christmas of 1996, when Bryn was a busy two-year-old discovering the wonders of the holiday. One of our many nativity displays is a fabric-and-velcro advent calendar, with a separate pocket for each of the 25 days leading up to Christmas. Each day the kids remove an item from a pouch, and as the month progresses the figures start to accumulate: star and stable animals, shepherds and wise men. The baby Jesus, of course, is always found in  number 25, and He makes His appearance on Christmas morning.

Except in 1996. That year Baby Jesus kept disappearing from his assigned pocket only to reappear elsewhere in the house, tucked side-by-side in a manger with another Baby Jesus in another of our many crèches. Suspecting we knew who the culprit was, we asked Bryn for an explanation. It was simple. She said: “He wanted to be with his fwiend.”

That is, in essence, what is meant by the condescension of God. He wanted to be with His friends. In that sense, the love of God represented by the Nativity extends far beyond that single night in Bethlehem. As the prophet Alma foretold, the birth of Jesus was precursor to a life with singular purpose, a life dedicated to the mortal experience that would enable Him, throughout the eternities, to understand what each of us, in our own individual way, might go through during our own earthly sojourn. Said Alma:

10 And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.

11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. (Alma 7:10 – 12)

Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of the Living God, came to earth to experience firsthand the full scope of life’s challenges so that He might know how succor us as we confront those challenges: pains, afflictions, temptations, sicknesses, infirmities—of every kind. Yours and mine. What you have suffered prior to this day and what you’re suffering right now. The hurts and offenses, the disappointments and heartaches. He knows them all.

And beyond that: The culmination of His earthly travail was His sacred death—endured and ultimately embraced simply because He loves us. Said He: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) As we consider, therefore, the love of God represented by the mother and child, let’s also remember what Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has stated: “It is the life at the other end of the manger scene that gives this moment of nativity its ultimate meaning” (Shepherds Why This Jubilee?, p. 57)

There is one final way in which that night in Bethlehem teaches us of the love of God. The gathering portrayed in a typical nativity display, with shepherds and wise men and angels encircling the bed of straw as mother and father hover near, captures also the love of God flowing in the opposite direction—the love FOR God, in other words. It is as if all have congregated around a warming fire, to absorb and reflect the love that is radiating therefrom.

We likewise gather, don’t we? To feel and express that love, to have our hearts touched and softened and then to give back what has been given to us. That is the true revelation, the true impact of the birth of Christ. The love of God it represents causes us also to love like Him.  Elder John H. Groberg once said: “When filled with God’s love, we can do and see and understand things that we could not otherwise do or see or understand. Filled with His love, we can endure pain, quell fear, forgive freely, avoid contention, renew strength, and bless and help others in ways surprising even to us.” (John H. Groberg, “The Power of God’s Love,” Ensign, Nov. 2004.)

May I close with the words of Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, YW General President, from a talk she gave just a couple of weeks ago during the First Presidency Christmas Devotional:

“As we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ this season, let us also celebrate all that His birth symbolizes, especially the love. When we see shepherds, may we remember to be humble. When we see wise men, may we remember to be generous. When we see the star, may we remember the Light of Christ, which gives life and light to all things. When we see a tiny baby, may we remember to love unconditionally, with tenderness and compassion. May we open the doors of our hearts and reach out to those around us who are lonely, forgotten, or poor in spirit. As we contemplate the example and infinite sacrifice of the Savior, may we also consider how we can be more Christlike in our associations with family and friends, not just during this season but throughout the year.” (“Christmas Is Christlike Love,” First Presidency Christmas Devotional, Dec. 2014)

More than at any other time, during the Christmas season the love of God sheds itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men. It is, indeed, the most desirable above all things. May we be filled with that love and radiate it to all around us.


Christmas Transformation

Dear Will:

On Saturday I found myself staring up at the rafters in the garage, anticipating with dread the prospect of hauling down all of the Christmas decorations to begin the annual transformation of our home for the holidays.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas, and I love how our home feels when all of the decorations are in place. But the labor required to get our home into that state is significant: We have to rearrange furniture. We have to find temporary homes for all of the stuff that will be displaced by the things up in the rafters. And worst of all: I have to put up the lights.

Oh, the lights. That part I genuinely despise. I generally put them up wrong the first time, invariably banging my bald head on the eaves a few times during the ordeal. And when at last they’re all in place, I plug them in to discover a short or a failed bulb that renders a whole section inoperable. Others aspire to riches so that they can drive a fancy car. For me, it’s so I can pay someone else to put up the Christmas lights. (Alas, I am not rich.)

After spending a weekend sorting and stashing and propping and plumping, after hooking and hanging and no doubt festooning, I finally get to step back with my wife and kids and admire the work. We’ll put on some favorite Christmas music (my first choice is usually Amy Grant), light the candles in the family room, and sit back to watch things sparkle. And when we do that, my heart finally softens and fills with the spirit of the season. Works like a charm. I just have to get there first.

So Saturday’s the day we’ll begin. No doubt the decorating will extend into our Sunday afternoon, but by this time next week we’ll be enjoying the fruits of our labors. And it will all, once again, be worth it. But between now and then I will anticipate the beginning of the process with enough grinchiness that it will confirm that Christmas cannot come too soon.

If you’re anything like me—and I pray that you aren’t—you may need a little extra push to get into the Christmas spirit. But whether or not you’re like me, may I recommend the annual Community Christmas Celebration as an excellent way to get in the mood and ring in the season. As I may have told you before, the event is a combination of nativity displays and holiday music. We’ve been going nearly every year for over a decade. We love it, as I think you will too.

I hope to see you there. I’ll be the guy with the fresh gash on his forehead and a slowly melting heart.


How to Fill Your Home with the Holiday Spirit

Dear Will:

Since I have a model family, I feel it my obligation to share with you some straightforward advice on how best to fill your home with the holiday spirit. I suggest you start with the decorations. . . .

A.  Put Up the Lights

You might think that it is still the Thanksgiving weekend—a time set aside for gluttony and football—when you discover, much to your delight, that the otherwise terrific guy next door has already festooned his abode with bright and cheerful electric doodads. “When are you going to put up our lights, Beloved?” your eternal companion might sing, filling your heart immediately with Christmas cheer. “Oh, I don’t know, Pumpkin,” you’ll say, “I was hoping perhaps to do it tomorrow during the UCLA-Oregon game.” Overjoyed that you have already embraced her vision, she’ll skip into the house with a fa la la la la.

You’ll start with great brio the next day because putting up the lights is always a highlight of the year for you—especially when there’s a big game on. We suggest the following essential steps:

  1. Untangle the lights. Or not. Throw away the ones that inexplicably become more tangled as you untangle them. Hum happily to yourself.
  2. Put up the first strand with brisk efficiency. After you discover that you have wrong end toward the outlet, take it down and redo it. Give the guy next door a friendly, high-spirited wave.
  3. Bang your head on the roof overhang, opening a gash which casts a Christmassy red across your pale, bald head. Chuckle to yourself as you ponder your amusing misfortune.
  4. Put up the second strand of lights. Replace the bulbs you break when you step on them. Then when it becomes clear that the plug cannot reach the socket, take it down and redo it. Whistle with contentment.
  5. Bang your head on the roof again. Just for the fun of it.
  6. Plug in the lights to check your progress. When half of the lights in one strand won’t come on, spend an hour or so trying to figure out which bulb is responsible for the broken circuit. Give up and rip the entire strand from the eaves with a merry “Ho Ho Ho.”
  7. Continue hanging and rehanging lights until dusk. Fall off of the ladder only as frequently as necessary. Pretend that you really didn’t care about the football game anyway. Think lovingly about your children who sit inside playing video games and texting their friends.
  8. Invite your sweetheart outside to admire the finished product. Give her a warm, affectionate squeeze when she says, “Tomorrow we start on the inside of the house.”

B.  Decorate the Tree

Much to the consternation of your eldest children, the tree comes in a box. Since it consists of three distinct parts, erecting the tree is a lot easier than, say, putting up the lights—which, we realize, does not explain the split lip and the chipped tooth. Be that as it may, the tree goes up in a relative jiffy.

Now comes the fun part: As the ornaments come out of the box, the time has arrived for the traditional, festive colloquy between the strident eldest children, who miss the days of yore “when we shopped for a real tree” each December, and the mom, who reminds them each year that, since we live in California, the trees that are trucked here from Oregon have been dead since Labor Day.  The substance of the discussion might go something like this:  Kids: “Tradition!” Mom: “Fire!” And so on. Until Valentine’s Day.

C.  Deck the Halls

You may not have boughs of holly, but you should have an array of baubles and oddments with which to make the season bright. As you distribute them where once you could find the remote control, observe in particular the stupefying array of snowmen which quickly establish a beachhead in your family room. (Should time allow, you may also wish to ponder the prominence of frosty décor in a place which hasn’t seen snow since there were wooly mammoths hot-tubbing in the La Brea Tar Pits.) As the kids scurry about with their favorite bits of bric-a-brac, notice how the mood has somehow shifted.

When each piece is in its place and the ancillary detritus has been stowed, ditch the yeti and go around the corner to the living room, where instead of elves and reindeer you’ll find shepherds and sheep of various varieties. Take a seat, and perhaps you’ll notice for the first time the holiday music that now fills your home, or the laughter (can it be?) emanating from all three children simultaneously. Cast your eyes about at the scene: On the wall hangs a picture of the Jesus, beside it a favorite print of timid shepherds stealing a glimpse of Mary and Joseph’s newborn son. There might be a wonderful paper crèche from Mexico City or one your son made many years ago out of aluminum foil. And if you’re lucky, you’ll spy a simple display made of olivewood which gets an honored spot on the table in the middle of the room. Notice also that in each crèche all eyes are on the baby. And who knows? You may find that yours are on the baby as well.

And so they should be at this time of year, tangled lights and plastic trees notwithstanding. It is, after all, the time of “peace on earth, good will to men”—provided, that is, that you don’t ask about the split lip.