My favorite Christmas happened when I was 20. It wasn't because of a gift I received, but a gift I gave.
That Christmas, I decided the best gift I could give my stepdad was to get up early and feed all the animals down at the barn. Pop usually had to trudge off to do this chore in between opening gifts and cooking breakfast. I wanted him to have a more relaxed morning.
I got up at 6 a.m., not early on most days, but early for Christmas morning. I slipped into my jeans and boots and went down in the dark to the barn. It was brisk for a Florida morning, cold enough to see my breath. The horses were already up and eager to eat. I measured out their feed and threw in a little more because it was Christmas. The barn cats slunk around my ankles, looking for their breakfast, which I delivered in abundance. Christmas was the one day there would be a truce between myself and the cats.
Then I hoisted a 40-pound bag of feed on my shoulder and crossed the lot over to the log barn. The log barn had been built by my great-grandfather around 1861. Behind it, there was a pen where we kept the steers we were feeding out. In that pen was an old feed trough that had been there all my life. There was no electricity in that barn, so I had to be guided by the light of the full moon slowly slipping under the horizon. The steers looked at me as I poured out their feed, their breath fogging the air, waiting for me to get out of their way.
That's when God spoke to me. A gentle whisper came to my soul: "It was here, in a place that smelled like this, with mud and muck that I came into the world. I was laid into a feed trough like the one you just poured feed into. Joseph had to keep the steers back from bothering the Savior of the world. Clay, I did this for you and for the whole world. That's how much I want to be with you and save you."
A chill ran down my spine. I realized how wide and deep and high my Heavenly Father's love is for me.
Making my way back to the house, the brightest star in the heavens, Sirius, seemed to wink at me, one more part of the Christmas story.
Why is this my favorite Christmas? Because on this Christmas, I got to live the day, instead of just celebrate it.
This Christmas, use some holy imagination and live the day. Let your mind conjure the smells. See the breath of the cows. Feel the squish of the mud. See the wooden trough made smooth by a thousand licks. Let your soul hear the good news, that unto you is born this day a Savior in the city of Bethlehem. Tis Christ the Lord!
Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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