“I’m dreaming of a [insert adjective of your choice] Christmas. Just like the ones I used to know…”
I have long felt that the reason this beloved holiday song by Irving Berlin continues to top popularity polls is because it expresses a sentiment concerning Christmas that is almost universal: the act of reminiscing. For most of us, the season is largely defined by memories of Christmas past. We fondly recall an eagerly desired childhood gift or the anticipated visit of a relative from many miles away. We relive a special program at church or that carol we couldn’t wait to sing around the piano. For many of us, our favorite Christmas is the one when we first knew Christ as Savior and the story became real and life-changing.
This is the presence of Christmas. As surely as we embrace it every year, we also know when it seems absent. We all can point to a Christmas when the circumstances of daily life obscured our ability to enjoy much peace on earth or joy to the world (in fact, sometimes the culprit is the pressures and obligations of Christmas itself!). I’m afraid December 25, 2014 was one such Christmas for me. I felt as if the presence of Christmas was very far away indeed, but I found my way back simply by remembering that we experience the presence of Christmas by drawing close to the presence of Christ. Now, that Christmas is easily one of my most memorable.
When I received an email from Luke Gambill and the creative team at Brentwood Benson asking if I’d be interested in writing the narration and optional dramatic script for their newest Christmas musical and the title was Christmas In His Presence, I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough! It was more than one of those serendipitous “God things.” I knew the events of the previous Christmas had actually prepared me to work on this project in ways I could have never foreseen. Here’s what happened:
Last December, I had the opportunity to travel to India for nine days with a small group of colleagues. Anyone who has visited this dynamic and beautiful country knows that winter is the optimal time for travel in this part of the world. The trip was scheduled from December 18-26. My children are now grown, so we planned our family Christmas for December 28. Off I flew to Delhi, confident that Christmas wouldn’t feel different this year—only slightly delayed.
How wrong I was. By Christmas Eve, I knew that Christmas, my Christmas, felt 8,000 miles away. It went far beyond the unfamiliar (however enticing) sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. It came down to the fact that I never saw a nativity display. I never heard “Silent Night” being played in the background. I never saw a star, angel, or manger. The people I encountered were gracious, hospitable, and always quick to greet me with a “Merry Christmas.” As I sat alone in my hotel room in the ancient town of Agra on December 24, I realized there was only one word I longed to hear, and that word was “Jesus.”
Of course, I knew right where I needed to go to hear that word; I knew where I needed to go to find my way back to His presence. I spent many hours in my old dog-eared Bible that night. I was reminded that though Jesus’ birth brought Him into our world, it was His death and resurrection that tore the veil in two and gave us the right to come into His presence for eternity.
I remembered that the psalmist invites us to “come before His presence with singing” and that once there, “in His presence is the fullness of joy.” It was quite a night—full of prayer, worship, and quiet celebration. I read Luke 2 aloud to the 10 pillows stacked on my bed. I sang “Joy to the World” to no one in particular. On that night, I felt the presence of Christmas because I was in the presence of Christ.
It isn’t surprising that every one of those experiences last December found their way into Christmas In His Presence. There is a continual emphasis on joy in the musical—both the joy of the participants in the first Christmas and our joy today as we remember that extraordinary event. In fact, the musical ends with “Joy to the World.”
There is also a powerful reminder that the story does not end in a stable. Two classic songs of worship, Babbie Mason’s “All Rise” and Geron Davis’ “In the Presence of Jehovah,” take us from the manger throne to the very throne of grace. And of course, there is singing. Lots of singing. My friend and collaborator Marty Hamby outdid himself in creating a tapestry of choral and orchestral colors that captures the heart of the season.
During the recording of the musical last January, Marty texted me from the studio in Nashville: “Just cut the opening to the carol medley. My soul! It is glorious!” Marty was not referring to his own work, as brilliant as it always is. He was referring to the power of hymnists like Charles Wesley and James Montgomery and how their timeless words echo across the centuries, and, of course, he was referring to the presence of Christmas. We both agreed that we heard it and felt it in every tune and every lyric.
I had the great privilege of writing an optional dramatic script that can be used instead of the narration in presenting Christmas In His Presence. Once again, I drew on my experience last Christmas in India and created a story about a new Army chaplain named Lt. Kyle Hargrove who has just arrived in a foreign country on December 24 for his first assignment. Feeling lonely and unable to sense the presence of Christmas in this faraway place, he turns to the solitary object in his bare barracks: a trunk of books and papers left by the retiring chaplain he is replacing.
As he reads through the material, the authors actually appear on stage, offering their words of comfort and joy. They range from Helen Keller and Corrie ten Boom to Charles Wesley and Luke (the author of the gospel) and eventually, the retiring chaplain himself. Kyle not only reads many of the same verses I read that night in India, he even sings a rousing chorus of “Joy to the World.” Like me, he rediscovers the presence of Christmas.
As I was researching material for the script and the narration, I was somewhat surprised to learn that many famous individuals throughout Christian history have also longed for the presence of Christmas in their lives. I was not surprised to learn that their searches led them to the same place we all eventually end up: at the manger of our Lord.
I always journal when I travel, and my last two sentences from my December 24, 2014 entry made their way onto the first page of narration for Christmas In His Presence: “This is Christmas: To stand in the presence of the Father…to bow in the presence of the Son.” May we all experience a renewed presence of Christ in our lives—this Christmas and always
About the author: Deborah Craig-Claar, a Dove Award-winning writer and lyricist, has created numerous seasonal musicals for the church including A Baby Changes Everything, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, The Christmas Post, and It’s America! Deborah balances an active schedule of church consulting with a 30-year tenure of college teaching in the areas of theatre, film and communication studies. Deborah and her family make their home in Olathe, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City.