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Sarah Phillips Christian Blog and Commentary

Sarah Phillips

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Blog spot for Sarah Jennings Phillips, Crosswalk.com Family Editor

Ah, it’s that time of year! The time filled with all our most precious family traditions. Traditions we -- dreaming of our future married lives -- envisioned our spouses embracing with equal sentimental vigor and attachment.

Then you really get married. And yes, he is wonderful. Obviously. But… you now realize there are some things missing from your younger daydreams of Christmas bliss. Like – his family. His traditions. His tastes and preferences. His personality and identity and equally sentimental but inevitably opposite approach to Christmas.

My husband and I married November 2010. It was the perfect day. Followed immediately by the most wonderful time of the year. So naturally, our first major marital disagreement arrived wrapped in Christmas paper and glitter. We could not fully agree on how to celebrate Christmas. What is it about this time of year that makes normally loving people lose their senses?

Here’s a glimpse into our quandary*:

  • Hubby loves Santa. And presents! And shopping! And Santa!
  • I love St. Nicholas of Myra, Bishop and Defender of the Faith. And contemplation of the Holy Mysteries of the Incarnation.
  • Hubby’s “love language”: gifts. Lavishing others with material goods brings him incredible joy.
  • I was raised in a home where my stocking was stuffed modestly with new socks and a few pieces of candy, and my most cherished presents were often hand-made or books. (Yes, I was the child who got excited about books).
  • Hubby likes to travel over the holidays. He (and his entire family) packs up for a vacation in the mountains several hours away. It’s a time filled with skiing and ice skating and shopping and fun and more fun!
  • My preference: home for the holidays. I can’t imagine a better place to be.
  • The only thing that prevents my husband from putting up the Christmas tree after Halloween is that it might die before December arrives.
  • I prefer celebrating Advent and the 12 Days of Christmas (Dec. 25th-Jan. 6th), which means waiting at least until two Sundays before Christmas to break out the celebratory décor.

Yes, it appears we have a case of Mr. Fun marrying Ms. Nun.*

So what is a couple to do?

I am not going to pretend to have all the answers, but here are some do’s and don’ts I learned after Christmas #1 last year:

1. Don’t sanctimoniously announce to your spouse that your way of celebrating is more spiritual. Surprisingly (ahem), this is a bad idea. Truthfully, there’s rarely a situation where this is a good approach. It smacks of pride and doesn't inspire anyone towards a greater relationship with Christ. It also hit me this year that my husband has been Mr. Christmas Fun for his entire life, and yet he has never wavered in his faith (a parent’s dream!). What right do I have to assume my quieter approach is always the holier approach?

2. Don’t hold on tightly to your family’s traditions. The beauty of getting married? It’s time to create a new family. Work together to incorporate your favorite traditions, and create a few new ones just for the two of you. (Yes, I know all the advice books say that. But they're right!).

3. Do, “nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself” (Phil. 2:3). This is the verse that will be my theme this year. The first year of marriage has taught me that some issues need to be worked out not with the focus on comprising or each getting their “equal share,” but with a spirit of holding the other spouse up with higher esteem than ourselves. It’s better to make him happy than to get everything I think I want. Yes really, it is. Besides, how can I really complain when he’s beckoning me to smile, eat one more cookie and buy my sister one more gift?

4. Do budget so that you can be generous. Typically, one spouse is the saver, wanting to keep gift costs low or creative, and the other spouse is a spender who can’t fathom depriving loved ones of fancy gifts. I’ve realized that my fretting over having an overly extravagant or materialistic Christmas would be unnecessary if we just budgeted not for being stingy, but for the purpose of being generous. Honestly, I love that my husband gets a thrill out of giving gifts. Why not encourage him in his Christmas spirit with a well-designed budget?

5. Do combine traditions. Okay, so we can’t literally be out of town with his family and in town with mine at the same time. But there are some traditions we can meld, like his desire to break out holiday décor early and my desire to focus on Advent. Advent begins shortly after Thanksgiving, often beginning as early as November. This year, I ran for our beautiful Advent wreath, set the candles up on our dining room table, and we’ve been happily lighting them at every dinner since the end of November. My husband likes Christmas carols playing at all times throughout December, many of which focus beautifully on the reason for the season. I’ve also made a point to add additional religious classics like Handel’s Messiah to our collection. Lastly, I love hand-made stuff, so of course I made our Advent wreath and much of our décor. Christmas really is a great time to experience joy as you combine two worlds.

6. Don’t be melancholy once a decision has been made. Open, honest expression of “true feelings” can be overrated at times. Once you’ve heard each other out and agreed on a plan for that year, it’s time to move on and embrace that plan without looking back.

7. Do Skype with the family you won’t see. Gone are the days when families moved away in covered wagons only to receive letters from one another a few times a year (although based on my own mourning of missing family, you’d think we still lived in that era). If you can’t see all your loved ones over the holidays, take advantage of technology.

8. Do forgive each other. Isn't grace and forgiveness the point of Christ coming in the first place?

9. Do focus on your unity in Christ. My husband and I waited a little later than some to marry because we wanted to marry a fellow believer. Now that we have each other, why bicker over different approaches to our faith? Instead, we can appreciate the fact that we do share our faith and learn from one another. Pray together, visit a living nativity together, and attend Christmas service together. There is no such thing as a bad Christmas when Christ is at the center.

*Disclaime #1 : My husband, our families and I are, of course, more complex than what I've presented here!

*Disclaimer #2: Yes, I know real nuns have plenty of fun!

Sarah Phillips, Crosswalk.com’s Family Editor, embraced faith in Christ at an unlikely phase in her life: as a skeptical undergraduate at Virginia Tech. She now enjoys putting her VT English degree to use at the Salem Web Network by observing and reflecting on cultural trends, marriage, family life, and the human condition through the lens of Christianity. When she’s not writing or editing, Sarah enjoys spending time with her husband, Corey.

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to the city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechari'ah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord."
Luke 1: 39 - 45,

You don't need me to tell you Christmas is fast approaching. We're approaching the last week to prepare for the big day. Chances are, you're rushing around trying to get last-minute errands completed. I have a mental list of "must do's" running through my own head.

So as I read this gospel for the final Sunday of Advent, I am struck by how Mary prepared for Christ's coming.  Mary received the biggest news of human history, the coming of the Messiah (through her!?), and what does she do? Mary sets aside her own agenda and "went with haste" to visit her cousin Elizabeth. At this point, Elizabeth's pregnancy is entering the final trimester and no doubt this older mother is tired and in need of assistance.

I imagine Mary must have had a lot of thoughts running through her head on the way to Judah. "Is Elizabeth really pregnant in her old age? She must be… but really? And how am I going to explain my situation to Elizabeth? Will she believe me?"

Mary's arrival is one of those great moments in history - a moment that reverberates throughout the ages that follow. This simple story of two pregnant women meeting carries so many implications. Some of the themes that stick out to me include:

1.     Mary's faith. Mary was obedient to God and put faith in him. She set aside her own comfort and questions to help Elizabeth. Mary's virtue shines through here, and God throws in a little reward - a miraculous and joyful greeting from Elizabeth.

2.     Elizabeth's selflessness. Elizabeth's news is a pretty big deal. Her husband receives a vision from an angel and she conceives in her old age after years of waiting. Yet, her first response focuses not on her big news, but on Mary's. This reveals Elizabeth's virtue and also adds emphasis to the reality that Mary's news holds even more profound implications for humanity than Elizabeth's miracle.

3.     The humanity of the unborn. In those days, pregnant women didn't enjoy the luxury of ultrasound technology. Yet, God makes the humanity of these little ones very clear here. Elizabeth exclaims, "And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" Elizabeth refers to Mary as "mother" in the present tense and she refers to the growing baby inside of Mary (who probably wasn't even showing yet) with his proper title:  Lord. God was "with us" the moment Mary conceived, and even the unborn John the Baptist recognized this!

4.     God works through fellow human beings. God could have found any number of ways to communicate his message that day. He chose to speak through Elizabeth and John and the communion between Mary and Elizabeth. He also brought help to Elizabeth during her last trimester through Mary and comfort to the newly pregnant Mary through Elizabeth.

5.     God's love for women. How can there be any doubt that God has a special place in his heart for the fairer sex after reading of Mary and Elizabeth's stories? God could have arrived on earth in any form he chose… and while the rest of the world remained ignorant, two women basked in the presence and knowledge of the Lord.

I am sure great theologians can extract even more from this story, but I'll leave it here for today. As your schedule ramps up in these final days of Advent, imitate Mary who "treasured up" the mysteries revealed to her and "pondered them in her heart." (Luke 2: 19)

How is God present in your life this holiday season? Think of the little ways God makes his presence known and brings you comfort and joy even in the midst of trials.

Humble Handmaid and "Mother of God?" What Catholics Believe About Mary
Women of Advent and Christmas: Elizabeth
Women of Advent and Christmas: Mary, Not Just a Womb

Sarah Phillips, Crosswalk.com’s Family Editor, embraced faith in Christ at an unlikely phase in her life: as a skeptical undergraduate at Virginia Tech. She now enjoys putting her VT English degree to use at the Salem Web Network by observing and reflecting on cultural trends, marriage, family life, and the human condition through the lens of Christianity. When she’s not writing or editing, Sarah enjoys spending time with her husband, Corey.

 

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us).” (Matthew 1:18-24)

The story is about a toy rabbit given to a boy for Christmas. The rabbit befriends one of the oldest, wisest toys in the nursery – The Skin Horse. One day, he asks the Skin Horse what it takes to become a real rabbit instead of a sawdust-filled bunny. Here is an excerpt of their conversation from Margery Williams’, The Velveteen Rabbit:

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

My stepmother, a family counselor, would smile at the Skin Horse’s words to his young friend. She approaches her calling as more than patching up broken lives, but helping each person become what she calls “real.” A “real” person is one who has shed all that is false and embraced what is true and pure. A theological word for becoming “real” would be sanctification.

I am often tempted to approach Christmas like I often would like to approach sanctification – as something that happened all at once and can now be relegated to a box from the past, marked “done.” Yet this Christmas, I am struck with how the first Christmas is very closely tied to our ongoing journey towards “realness.”

That’s because Christmas is the day God became Real. Oh, sure God’s always been real, but on that day, he became real to us in a special way. He entered the world as a baby that could be cuddled and held by people like you and me.

Theologians have a fancy word for God becoming Real: the Incarnation.

What is so amazing about the Incarnation is that God didn’t merely become similar to us -- He wasn’t like an angel who experimented with a few human experiences. No, God became fully human, through and through. And he didn’t just become human to empathize with us (although He certainly does), but to quite literally transform us, through and through. You see, if God hadn’t become Real, we would have no hope of becoming real.

St. Athanasius, a great defender of the doctrine of Incarnation explained it like this:

“He sanctified the body by being in it … Just as the sun is not defiled by the contact of its rays with earthly objects, but rather enlightens and purifies them, so He Who made the sun is not defiled by being made known in a body, but rather the body is cleansed and quickened by His indwelling.”

Even before the Cross, Jesus’ birth began the reversal of the divorce between creation and the Divine caused by Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. By becoming man, God didn’t merely descend to our human level but lifted humanity up to His Divine level. Sin and its effects on the body and soul met it’s match in the mere existence of this Child. As our former pastor used to say, “Christmas was a marriage between heaven and earth.” 

The miracle of the Incarnation not only changes humanity’s relationship with God, but also with each other. After the Fall, Adam and Eve hid from one anther. Family life was forever affected, tainted by our first parents. Now, can you imagine the first Christmas? Mary and Joseph, husband and wife, held God Incarnate in their arms. This humble couple peered into the Face of the very same God who, in the Old Testament scriptures, could not be directly looked upon or touched. The same God from whom their first mother and father fled in shame. Jesus’ quiet birth to Mary and Joseph elevated family life beyond its natural and legal purposes, opening the door for family life to unite us with God and thus, more closely unite us with each other.

“Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:9)

On the first Christmas, Jesus, Mary and Joseph still had a journey ahead of them. You and I also have a journey ahead of us – we are not finished products yet. As we walk life’s road, shedding the old for the new along the way, let’s imitate Mary by “treasuring up” the miracle of the Incarnation in our hearts. Soak in the fact that Our God became Man so that all that was once lost could be restored, and we as His people, could share in His glory. That is as real as it gets.

Sarah Phillips, Crosswalk.com’s Family Editor, embraced faith in Christ at an unlikely phase in her life: as a skeptical undergraduate at Virginia Tech. She now enjoys putting her VT English degree to use at the Salem Web Network by observing and reflecting on cultural trends, marriage, family life, and the human condition through the lens of Christianity. When she’s not writing or editing, Sarah enjoys spending time with her husband, Corey.

And now I will show you the most excellent way.  If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal... 
1 Corinthians 12:31, 1 Corinthians 13:1 NIV

Have you ever found yourself in a room of marriage cynics? The comments sound something like this:

  • Wait as long as you can to get married. Live your life before you have to give it up!
  • Marriage is hard.
  • Marriage just doesn't "work" for most people.
  • My husband doesn't... (fill in the blank here with unmet desires)
  • I wish she wouldn't... (fill in the blank here with built-up frustrations)

There's a lot of negativity out there about marriage. I'm sure I haven't even covered the full spectrum of comments. It's enough to give a bride an anxiety attack.

What kind of credence should we give to such comments? I've had to think about this a lot lately. I mean, as a newlywed, am I really just a blind idiot who entered into a broken, unfulfilling institution? Looking around at the broader culture, it can sure seem that way.

But not long after my husband and I got engaged last year, a married coworker slipped into my office. She shared: "You'll hear people tell you how awful marriage is. Don't listen to it. Trust me, a marriage centered on Christ is very fulfilling!" Then I ran across this inspiring article titled more than a table for two: the difference a christ-centered marriage makes by bride Stephanie Duncan. She observes:

Our culture tells so many stories of relational wreckage.  Instead of learning love from a Personal Being, a secular marriage too often practices love not as a sacred quality but a sentiment divorced from its very Creator.  In a sense, they are borrowing an attribute that belongs to a God they don't know and exercising a representation of a spiritual truth they don't believe.

This disconnect from the Author of Love seems to be at the very root of why there are so many marriage cynics out there. After all, scripture tells us clearly "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). How on earth could we love another human being at all, much less for life, if we're cut off from the source of all love? 

 

I would also like to read the book that instigated the article - Rebecca Price Janney's then comes marriage?: a cultural history of the american family. Janney is a "theologically trained historian" who sets out to put American family life in perspective by debunking some of the myths fueled by 1950's pop culture. Duncan shares:  

Rather than condemning the culture, Janney turns this scenario on its head by placing the weight of responsibility on Christians to display "the most excellent way" and shine all the brighter… After intriguing tales of bride ships, Victorian modesty, and feminist activism, Janney brings her readers to the conclusion that the restoration of the American family is up to the saints.

In other words, challenges to marriage are nothing new. But no matter the era, Christian couples can help others see "the most excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:1) of true love. What a wonderful mission for married life!

Of course, it's a bit presumptuous to think that just because you're Christian, you can start preachin' and teachin' marriage seminars. So I appreciated Duncan's thoughts on how she and her fiancé want to take up the challenge to redeem the crumbling state of marriage. She shares: 

Zach and I may not have company china or the kind of house that can accommodate a church retreat, but we will get to know our neighbors.  In August we plan to run a 5K together to support the local crisis pregnancy center, and once we find a church we plan to get involved.  This is not because we think we have anything fantastic to offer, but because we feel that opening our lives to others is part of spiritual obedience and we want to start this habit now.

I couldn't agree with this approach more. Normal people doing normal things to grow closer to God, each other, and as a result, shine a light in the surrounding community. My husband and I look forward to joining couples like Stephanie and Zach as we grow in this "most excellent way."  Christian marriage may not translate into the "easiest way" or "the most obvious way," but I suspect the Christ-centered journey will be the most joyful way. And hopefully we'll take a few people along the road with us.

Are you frustrated and exhausted with the constant political wrangling over the definition of marriage? You may feel there is little you can contribute to the issue, but as a Christian, your life is a witness to the world of Christ's love. If you're married, your marriage is also a special witness of Christ's love. Are you living in a way that allows His love to shine clearly and brightly to a hurting world?

Sarah Phillips, Crosswalk.com’s Family Editor, embraced faith in Christ at an unlikely phase in her life: as a skeptical undergraduate at Virginia Tech. She now enjoys putting her VT English degree to use at the Salem Web Network by observing and reflecting on cultural trends, marriage, family life, and the human condition through the lens of Christianity. When she’s not writing or editing, Sarah enjoys spending time with her husband, Corey.

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