Sunday, December 24, 2006

I bring you good tidings of great joy

Sunday, December 24, 2006 Observation:

This Christmas Eve is the 68th Christmas Eve it has been my privilege to experience.  I hope to be able to experience a few more but one never has any guarantee.  Christmas Eve for me has always been a wonderful day -- the best day of the year in many ways.  Of course, I can't remember in detail all of those past Christmas Eves, but I do remember the special feeling they have always brought to me.

Never to be forgotten however, is the Christmas Eve of 1959.  I was serving as the branch president of a small struggling branch of 46 members in the town of Ahuachapan, El Salvador -- today in that same town there is the El Salvador, Ahuachapan Stake.  Christmas Eve was a great family tradition and celebration in our little town of Ahuachapan.  Because of that no branch activity was planned for that special evening.

Several days before Christmas Eve my companion and I heard a knock on the door and one of the faithful and humble brothers in our little Branch entered our small apartment room and invited us to eat Christmas Eve dinner at his home with him and his family.  We readily accepted, realizing what an honor it was to be invited into his home on this very special evening.  Wouldn't you know it, just a few minutes later another equally faithful and humble member of the Branch knocked on the door and invited us to his home for dinner on Christmas Eve. We just felt we couldn't disappoint either family (neither family knew the other one had invited us), and thankfully the dinners were several hours apart which would make it possible to honor both invitations the same evening. 

When we entered the first humble two room home on Christmas Eve, we were astonished to see the great feast this family had prepared for the Elders.  They spent money they didn't have to make this dinner as special as possible, and we embarrassingly realized we were eating most of the food, and that they just wouldn't stand for any refusal of the food they were offering us as servants of the Lord.  In their minds nothing was too good for us -- the Elders of Israel!

You would have been proud of the amount of food we ate at that first dinner and then we began to jog through the streets to our next appointment trying to burn up some of the calories we had consumed.  The scene was repeated at the next home, but again, my companion and I were equal to the task and this family never suspected that we had just recently consumed an enormous banquet.

We stumbled out of their home and staggered down the street to our apartment which was adjacent to the Catholic cathedral.  We fell onto our beds in a stupor, with visions of tortillas, frijoles, and tamales dancing in our heads.  All of a sudden we were almost blasted out of our beds by a tremendous roar.  We thought a terrorist had blown up the Catholic cathedral.  We rushed to the window, threw open the sash, and beheld the sky ablaze with exploding rockets and fireworks of all kinds, all emanating from the courtyard of the Catholic cathedral.  The streets were full of beautiful, humble, Latin American people with joyous smiles on their faces, rejoicing and celebrating in their own unique way, the birth of the Savior of us all.
Here in the United States we celebrate Christmas Eve a little differently than in Latin America. Each year at Christmastime, Jo Anne decorates our home as you do yours.  The tree, the lights, and all of the other beautiful decorations make of Christmas a festive and wonderful time of year.  Over the years my favorite decoration has been a small three letter word made out of red and green felt that usually hangs somewhere in the house during the Christmas season.  That word is "JOY"!  It is my favorite decoration because I think that one word "JOY" captures the essence of the spirit of Christmas and the ultimate purpose of Christ's birth and mission better than any other word.

The prophet Lehi, as he instructed his son Jacob, taught the eternal truth that "Adam fell that men might be and men are that they might have joy."  The kind of joy Lehi spoke of can only come through Christ.

The joy the Savior brings to the world results not just from his birth but from the power of His atoning sacrifice for each one of us.  The prophet Isaiah, 2500 years ago, wrote: "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].

A significant portion of His earthly ministry was spent in healing the bodies and spirits of those among whom he walked -- bringing them joy and pre-figuring His ultimate act of healing -- His resurrection and ultimately ours. "As Jesus healed, the scriptures say, "All the people were amazed" (Matthew 12:23). They brought their sick, their "blind, and dumb" (Matthew 12:22), those that were "possessed with a devil" (Matthew 12:22; also Mark 1:32), and their dead. They sought Him every day and into the evening. So great was His reputation and His healing power that they sought to "only touch the hem of his garment; and as many as touched were made perfectly whole" (Matthew 14:36). "And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching . . . and preaching the gospel . . . , and healing every sickness and every disease among the people" (Matthew 9:35)."  [Dr. Elaine S. Marshall] Christ was and is the Master healer of mankind. 

As sons and daughters of God, living in this mortal world, we are subject to a variety of experiences. We have our seasons of peace when everything is going well and we also have our seasons of sorrow. Through Christ's birth, life, and atoning sacrifice however, whatever our lot in life at any given moment, we can still experience the joy that Christ desires to give to all who are willing to exercise faith in him and come unto Him with full purpose of heart. 

Seventeen years ago at Christmastime I was lying in a hospital bed in a rehabilitation center. Although my family and friends did all they could do to bring the Christmas spirit to me in that setting, I will always remember what a bleak Christmas it was for me. My accident and subsequent injury was absolutely devastating.  All was not well with my soul that Christmas and for some time after I felt depressed and empty inside.  The help I needed could not come from mortal man but only from Christ.

As time went by however, a great miracle took place in my life. The Savior healed my soul.  I was filled with joy, peace, and a sense of well being that I never thought I would ever experience again.  The joy that came into my life and has continued with me through the subsequent years has come from the Savior and from no other source.

Because of my own experience I have come to understand more fully the words of the Savior to Joseph Smith when he said to him and all of us: "Wherefore, fear not even unto death; for in this world your joy is not full, but in me your joy is full.  Therefore care not for the body neither the life of the body; but care for the soul and for the life of the soul." [D&C 101:36-37.]

Our challenge in life and especially at this time of the year is to not be so concerned about the physical and material but to care more for the things of the spirit that bring the joy of Christ into our lives and into the lives of others. 

It is my prayer that this Christmas we may more fully understand the message of the Angel to the humble shepherds that night of nights when he announced to them, "... I bring you good tidings of great joy ...."  [Luke 2:9-10.] So it was then, and so it is now, and so will it ever be!


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