Christmas Day sermon

Today we celebrate Christmas. Why we celebrate Christ is clarified by another name for the day: the Nativity of our Lord. That at least clarifies the reason we’re celebrating Christ is for his birthday!

Yet that still requires clarification. Mostly birthdays are about a ticking clock and a mark of getting older, as I myself notched ahead to 38 years on Thursday. Rarely from birth could we claim someone is destined for greatness or be able to predict the shape of their life much at all; observing Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, for example, is retrospective, for what he went on to accomplish and not because on the day of his birth even his family could’ve expected the Civil Rights movement or that this newborn son would lead a nonviolent revolution against racism, militarism, and extreme materialism.

Yet with Jesus, our stories proclaim huge expectations from this moment of nativity or even before: that he is a Savior bringing great joy to all people (Luke 2:10-11), a light to the nations (2:32), that he will be called great and will reign forever (1:32-33), that he will save his people from sins (Matthew 1:21), and fulfill what prophets had proclaimed of old (1:22). That’s predicting an awful lot for a baby.

But I guess the rest of us don’t have angelic messengers or a heavenly chorus heralding our arrival in the world. We get a doctor’s a-ok on 10 fingers and toes and friends and family to cradle us and say, “Isn’t he cute? She looks just like her father.”

That ordinariness, though, points to another term characterizing and best embodying this day: incarnation. It comes from the Gospel of John’s proclamation: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Incarnation is a word for en-fleshing, for God’s presence amid the meatiness and carnality and very real, bodily parts of our existence in this world. So today—with God’s presence in a flesh-and-blood birth—is a feastly celebration, a day for, indeed, meat, plus cookies and wine and tables spread, for treats from stockings, and extra goodies.

Besides feasting, incarnation means this is a day for extravagant presents wrapped with pretty paper and for enjoying companionship and great music. It’s a day for a walk to wonder at snow and birdsong. Or—given the rainyness—to curl up with a warm blanket and a book. There are so many possible delights, and Christmas—this incarnational, earthy day—is about all of them, declaring nothing is profane or secular or separated from God. All we experience is holy and blessed and touched by God.

On the other side—which we must not forget—this incarnation wasn’t only in the enjoyments of life. This birthday, this baby born into our flesh, came into life with a worn out and exhausted mother, surrounded by sheep poop (as a recent Saturday Night Live sketch portrayed so theologically accurately), with lowlife shepherds, and oppressive systems and political disappointments and the homelessness of “no room in the inn.”

Lest we missed that point on his birthday, Jesus grew up not for royal palaces and posh easy life, but to hang out with the hungry and hurting, the sinners and prostitutes, telling people they were forgiven, that their faith made illness well, that God had come near to them.

So as we hold the celebration today, the feast, the special birthday party with the richest treats and brightest lights and company, we also hold the sorrows and sadnesses of life, the suffering and longing, like our reflections did—of prison and isolation, of divisions and wars and insecurities, of disasters both natural and unnatural. These are where Christ most wants to be identified, and for whom God’s arrival in the world is most transformatively hopeful. Nothing and no one is left out.

It is with this broadest sense of life, the good and the bad, the celebrated feast and the needful holding fast that we have the full image of observing Christmas, of incarnation, of God with us.

 

Christmas from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Viewed from a Christian perspective, Christmas from a prison cell can, of course, hardly be viewed as particularly problematic. Most likely many of those here in prison will celebrate a more meaningful and authentic Christmas than in places where all that survives of the celebration is the feast in name only. That misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment;, that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—a prisoner grasps this better than others.  For the prisoner the Christmas story is glad tidings in a very real sense. And to the extent that he [or she] believes it, a prisoner has been placed in Christian community and is a part in the communion of saints, a fellowship transcending the bounds of time and space and reducing the months of confinement here in prison walls to insignificance.

On Christmas I shall be thinking of you all very much, and I want you to believe that I too shall have a few hours of real joy and that I am not allowing my troubles to get the better of me….When one thinks of the horrors that have overcome so many recently, then one becomes aware anew of how much we still have to be grateful for. Presumably … the children will think back on [this Christmas] for many years to come. But perhaps precisely this will reveal to some for the first time, the true meaning of Christmas. May God protect us all.

with great gratitude and love,

your Dietrich

 

Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem, Maya Angelou

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes

And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.

What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.

Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.

The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.

Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Peace.

Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.

On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.

At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.

We, Angels and Mortal’s, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.

Peace, My Brother.

Peace, My Sister.

Peace, My Soul.

 

Room for Christ, by Dorothy Day                          (Watch for the Light, p179)

It is no use saying that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. …Christ is always with us, … But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that he speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers, and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers, and suburban housewives that he gives. It is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that he walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that he longs for shelter. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.

We can do now what those who knew him in the days of his flesh did. I am sure that the shepherds did not adore and then go away to leave Mary and her Child in the stable, but somehow found them room …

If we hadn’t got Christ’s own words for it, it would seem raving lunacy to believe that if I offer a bed and food and hospitality to some man or woman or child, and that my guest is Christ. There is nothing to show it, perhaps. There are no halos already glowing round their heads – at least none that human eyes can see. …

It would be foolish to pretend that it is always easy to remember this. If everyone were holy and handsome, with … neon lighting [shining] from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone.

If Mary had appeared in Bethlehem clothed with the sun [and] a crown [as the book of Revelation says] … then people would have fought to make room for her.But that was not God’s way for her, nor is it Christ’s way for himself, now when he is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth. …

In Christ’s human life, there were always a few who made up for the neglect of the crowd. The shepherds did it; their hurrying to the crib atoned for the people who would flee from Christ. The wise men did it; their journey across the world made up for those who refused to stir one hand’s breadth from the routine of their lives. …

[Yet] It is not a duty to help Christ, it is a privilege. … And that is the way [hospitality] should still be given. Not for the sake of humanity. Not because it might be Christ who stays with us, comes to see us, takes up our time. Not because these people remind us of Christ, … but because they are Christ, asking us to find room for him, exactly as he did at the first Christmas.

 

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Dorothy Jean Anderson  23 April 1927 + 1 January 2015

Psalm 23; Romans 8:35-39; John 1:1-18

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

We gather this moment in loss, the person you knew taken away. Death steals a loved one from you. That sad fact is also true in strong degree about dementia and Alzheimer’s, about bad illnesses and diseases that ravage somebody to an extent that you know longer know them, can’t recognize them as familiar.

I know this case has been in process since Dorothy moved to Wisconsin, at least since she became less capable and more dependent, since her mind deteriorated and her personality changed. The final fall into weakness and visit to the emergency room and her body finally deciding enough was enough has just been the last stage, even to an extent a stage of relief, for these many months of having your mother slip away from you, Chris and family. She was no longer the woman you had known.

There is blessing in many wonderful memories, the stories shared that make you who you are. With your mother and grandmother, there are things from long ago, of growing up around her. There was her care and guidance and watchful eye and all she taught you. As you grew, the memories change, but it is still the same woman you know and remember. For those of you who knew her at other times, you have your own recollections and cherished moments. Those are things that, in spite of what it meant to be losing her and even facing this larger loss of death now that nevertheless cannot be taken away. That part of her abides with you.

Yet as I’ve been reflecting on that, also striking me is how difficult—or impossible—it is really to know each other fully. Think for a moment on how much you don’t know: all the things you heard only second-hand, almost as tall tales or legends; the secrets that you heard about much later, as well as those that remain undiscovered; all the vast and long details of Dorothy’s life—from her childhood to daily routines to internal emotions—all that you just plain have no way of knowing.

I’m thinking about that because even as much of her as you knew and loved and have in some way lost, it still means you knew her only in part.

I’m also thinking about that because it echoes our Gospel reading, in discussing what we may or may not know of God. It says there’s plenty we don’t know, since nobody has ever seen God. But it’s not left to mystery or our imaginations. It says what we have known of God is Jesus.

That’s important for us, for this time of death and this time of holiday. At the end of the Christmas season, on this 12th day of Christmas, this reminds us that we know God as a baby in a manger, cradled and nursed by his mother Mary, as one born to be good news for Bethlehem and for shepherds and for kings and for the sick and despairing and for Dorothy and for us. Jesus is the heart of this good news, the core and crux of what we need to know about God. We know that God has come to be with us, to dwell among us and live with us, that God cares for us. That is the Word calling us into being, creating life in us, and then entering our life, the Word that becomes flesh.

It is also this Word we know in Jesus who will never leave us, who is God abiding with us. In Jesus, we know a God who holds us close, who is there to nurse and assist us in our weakness and help us in our needs. (With that, we should well note that the point of this gathering was in gratitude for the caring staff of Heritage Monona, who are serving as an embodiment of God’s work. Thank you for doing it.) We share in this God knowledge of compassion, since Jesus suffers with us, goes through loss and cries out in feeling lonely and forsaken. So we know a God who won’t abandon us even in the face of death. Ultimately God brings us through that, out of his tomb and out of our graves to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Again, the core and crux of what you may know about God at this moment is that God is not distant or unconcerned or powerless. In Jesus you have a God of love, abiding with you for life. You are brought into God’s family, an assurance for Dorothy long ago in baptism that she was claimed as a beloved child of God. As the beautiful Romans reading reminds us, nothing can stop that love. Nothing can stop God’s work. Nothing that interferes with life. Nothing that goes wrong. No diseases or struggles or brokenness. Not even death can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

That, finally, reminds me of one other Bible passage. It’s one we don’t usually relate either to Christmas-time or to funerals, but mostly to weddings. The “love chapter,” 1st Corinthians 13, works well at the start of a marriage, when families begin together, encouraging us to be patient, kind, and enduring in love. It’s guidance that can serve well in all of our relationships. But, as we said earlier, even at our best and closest, still we only know in part. As it says in those verses, we see in a glass darkly, or have a fuzzy view through a mirror. It’s not complete yet.

“But then,” it concludes, “then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.” Those are words of promise for you and for Dorothy. She was fully known by God, recognized and loved and held throughout her long life. In faith, she clung to trust in this God through Jesus. And now she rests in the promise of completion, that she will know God fully, face to face.

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Jesus & Our Priorities, Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Christmas

(John1:1-18; Sirach 24:1-12; Wisdom 10:15-21; Ephesians 1:3-14)

Here we are beginning a new year, turning calendars to 2015, thinking ahead of resolutions and what needs to change, and I’m foolishly going to suggest we need to use this opportunity to look backward.

Furthermore, we have this gospel reading from the start of John’s Gospel, the Prologue, as it’s known. It’s an intro, an opening. It is there for us to look forward, to set the tone of all that is going to come in the story of Jesus. Plus, we’re on the cusp of Epiphany, when for six Sundays we’ll encounter the next parts of Jesus’ story, the ways this light is revealed to the world, of how people got to know him and how we get to know him.

But for now, as we have maybe a pause, a hint of what’s coming, we also need a reminder of what came. We gather today on day 11 of the 12 days of Christmas. The Christmas season officially concludes tomorrow. And it’s worthwhile that we have to think back to Christmas Eve today. As we gather amid falling needles and poinsettia debris, our world in so many ways has already moved on. The gifts are unwrapped and put away. By December 26, radio stations had already switched off the holiday hits. Focuses changed to New Year’s Eve celebrations. Decorations come down as we tidy up. We return to work and school, to regular rhythms. We go back to life.

Yet today, interrupting again, we are compelled to recall a baby born in a barn. And just to be clear, that isn’t a cuddly and sweet story endeared to us because it is set well to music. It isn’t just a holiday pause. It’s not a diversion from life, but a reorientation of life. And Christmas must be that because centrally what we believe and continue to proclaim is that God was born.  God was born. Again, our understanding of Jesus isn’t just that he grew up to be a nice guy, or that he was a nonviolent revolutionary who could be a thorn in the side of the world’s most powerful empire, nor even that he knew a lot about God. What we believe is that Jesus was—and is—God.

As the story continues, it gets even more disturbing. Beyond the Prologue, all of John’s Gospel could be seen as a commentary or an argument about how Jesus, a particular person could make God present for us and, more, actually could have gone on to be killed. God, even though he’s human and not unbroken and, yes, even though he was executed on a cross. It’s just plain outrageously foolish.

But then we amp up our foolishness to the nth degree. Our peculiar readings for today expand our perspective, identifying in Jesus God’s eternal wisdom that provided the shape and pattern for the existence of our universe since before anything came to be.  Since we’re looking back, we’ll look waaay back. The readings step back from the Bethlehem stable to say that the one who was born there was with God, was God, since the beginning, speaking all things into existence. “No one has ever seen God,” it said. Only Jesus has made God known. That’s a no-nonsense statement with oomph.

So, aside from the fact that this has been scriptural understanding and that Christians have held this belief ever since there were Christians, still Jesus as God has gotta give us some pause and make us uncomfortable. It is so direct, so particular.

It has been making me think of a phrase I hear too often from friends and others generally. In talk about raising children regarding faith, they say they’re “going to let them decide for themselves and choose what they want to believe.” It’s a strange thing to say. I mean, for simple starters, we don’t let kids decide whether or not they want to use silverware or have table manners. Going to school isn’t optional. We pretty well expect they’ll subscribe to our society’s ethics and norms. We even struggle with disappointment when they challenge our allegiances, to an alma mater or to a sports team. But God is up for grabs on doing whatever they might want?!

It seems so backward. Isn’t the whole point of God, being something that’s bigger than you? That you are among creation, and so don’t get to pick (or be) the Creator? Wouldn’t it be the height of presumptuousness to imagine you could set aside God for another deity, or that you could take-or-leave the whole spiel altogether? Isn’t this exactly what the 1st Commandment is about, and why it’s the 1st Commandment? That is to say, it’s a question of priorities—literally meaning what we put first.

Furthermore, it’s evident that we’re bad at making these so-called choices. The Prologue says Jesus came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. It’s saying that they already had some knowledge of this God, but still couldn’t see it, wouldn’t accept him. Or, as it says a bit more gloomily after John 3:16, “the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.”

Yet it’s not just our postmodern families, with lives overflowing with flashy options (even if they’re not truly optional and not all that good or bright). It’s not just those who want to sleep in on Sundays. Getting back to the main issue at hand, still even those of us who have spent our lives in church probably have difficulty with identifying God with Jesus alone.

I suspect for our children we need to re-focus this devotion, and we ourselves need to be more devoted. We would benefit from reclaiming this wisdom, remembering the true shape of our lives and what brings us light. We are people with myriad commitments and obligations and diffuse interests, scattering us in so many directions, and probably leaving us un-grounded and less enlightened, if not entirely self-devoted idolaters. I can say for myself, right along with the rest of you, that I certainly fall short in having this be the center of my life, with all the rest of who I am to be oriented around Jesus, structured out from that center, to know that life is marked from a manger to the cross and out beyond an empty tomb.

And there’s the core of why it matters. We look back to Jesus to know what God still plans and intends for us, what the shape of our lives and the goal of our universe is supposed to be. So it isn’t that we have a God who so sternly demands obedient allegiance, with threats of “or else.” It’s that there’s so much promise for us and for all creation around us in this God who has come to dwell with us. It’s worth being able to trust our lives, our hopes, our existence to Jesus. That’s what makes it the priority. This is what God wants for us, to offer assurances and to guide and fulfill our lives.

For starters with that, we’re not left aimlessly wondering whether the universe is against us, or if we just need to try a bit harder to have karma go our way, or if there’s any point to it at all or if our lives are simply irrelevant. We, instead, are given confidence in love and charity and community. In Jesus, we know compassion. We know that our lives matter, that we’re not just waiting for our souls to fly away, but that this flesh, this created stuff, this world is vital to God. God is utterly invested here. With Jesus as God revealed for us, from a lowly birth in Bethlehem to being with the poor and the ill, on to the end you may know that God’s good for you cannot be stopped even by death.

One last word of promise for today, a nice, tender image. I really cherish and cling to these during this Christmas season, because I find the image of Mary cradling and nursing the baby God so stunning and beautiful. This is a parallel to that. Our final verse from John had the stuff about no one ever seeing God, but God being made known only by Jesus. Along with that was the phrase that the Son “is close to the Father’s heart.”

That’s helpful already. That heart-felt image of knowing God by heart tells us of proximity, of shared emotions, of love, of Jesus revealing for us what is centrally important to know about God.

But rather than just heart, a more direct translation of that phrase would be that Jesus is held “in the bosom” of the Father. Just as Mary nursed Jesus, the baby God, so God’s own bosom nurses with tender care. And Jesus isn’t the only one held close in God’s bosom. Jesus brings you into this family, making us all children of God, nursed and sustained and held dearly, close to God’s heart and in God’s bosom forever. That’s good stuff, worth knowing, worth remembering, re-orienting your whole life. So, Merry Christmas!

Hymn: Of the Father’s Love Begotten (ELW #295)

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Comments for Christmas

I want to give you a little Christmas gift, one you’ve probably not gotten before, a present containing five letters, wrapping up a little package of good, important Lutheran theology.

Here you go: c-a-p-a-x. Capax. It’s Latin, and since you’ve been chanting and singing gloria in excelsis, you’re ready for it. Capax comes across in our words capability and capacity. It’s a particularly applicable word for Christmas. In church history, our capax word has been a link, with a question mark, between two other words. The full phrase is finitum capax infiniti. It’s nice because it already sounds a bit like English. We could say this is about the finite having capacity for the infinite. Rephrasing could ask if the mortal has room for the immortal, if created things are capable of holding the presence of the Creator. Do we and our world have capacity and capability for God in us? Capax or non capax?

To me, it starts out sounding like a physics question. You know you can’t empty a whole pot of coffee into a single mug; there isn’t enough capacity. On the other hand, if we had snow you could imagine taking a sledful of it and packing it into one dense snowball. Ratcheting it up a degree, would we be able to take all the air in this room and squeeze it inside an air compressor tank? Or what if we tried to focus the light of the sun to shine directly and only onto our planet? There we’d have to figure the answer is no, non capax, not capable. Our planet couldn’t bear so much solar radiation. Earth would simply burn up, disintegrate, melt away. The sun is too powerful, too overwhelming.

So this is the question of God. Can all of God’s omnipresent infinite size be poured into the body of a tiny baby? Can the God who created the entire cosmos be reduced into the form of one so little and impotent and helpless? Can we encounter all of God’s blazing spectrum of true Light, illustrated in this infant, or is that light so searing and intense that it would burn us up? Can we comprehend our unfathomable God, wrap our heads around this mystery, and hold it in our arms? What about this: could there be any possible validity in this eternal God of all life breathing his last, really dying, put to death, coming to nothing, annihilated on the cross? Capax raises these big theological ideas, which almost come across as nonsense questions.

Maybe we can take a bye on that last one this morning. But another of the lingering capax conundrums is for today, because it has been about Mary. I suppose partly it’s that the chauvinists of history haven’t wanted to grant such a place to a woman, but there was long and fierce debate about a title, of her being called “the God-bearer,” bearing God in her womb, and whether Mary’s body had capacity to contain God and deliver God into this world. The shock of that mystery I find, however, outdone by the beauty of another mystery, as we go on to say that Mary’s breast nursed God, that she was responsible for the nurture and care of God’s life.

To take away a degree of the lofty speculation or pondering Mary’s body so long ago, to place it in your own lap here and now, we also must ask if your stomach is big enough to hold God. Do you have an iron gut that can contain God? After all, this God, on the night in which he was betrayed, took bread, broke it, and gave it to you, saying “This is my body.” It isn’t that you get a fragment or morsel of God, that you nibble up a bit, as if you took a bite out of a portion of a chicken. In, with, and under bread, you are given God’s body to eat. He promises his presence there for you. You swallow, and God is contained in your own belly.

Can God really do that—become flesh, be born as a human, wander around in a body, be killed, give himself to you in bread, be digested by you, dwell within you? Can the natural things of our world bear the weight of God’s presence and still exist? Capax? Really?

Clearly, it would be easier to answer “no.” It would be tidier to restrict God to heaven, some distant, foreign realm that doesn’t really relate to us and which we don’t have to encounter. Or to claim that God is spirit that pervades all things anyway, and we can’t add to it or take away from it. Or that rather than any sort of “it,” a some-thing, that God is more of an emotion, the sense of goodwill and generosity we feel, that which inspires love in us.

Yet that’s not Christmas. Our answer of capax has to be Yes. Maybe our unimportant, imperfect lives should be obliterated when coming face-to-face with the majestic holiness of God. Maybe that understanding should be too much, making the circuitry of our brains go haywire. Maybe that light is so intense, we shouldn’t be able to gaze at it or stand in its presence. Maybe God is so vast that nothing we say should be able to contain God. Maybe our capacity should always fall short.

And yet, here is God, among you. The full presence of God, arriving in our world to be nursed and swaddled. I saw the term yesterday from Mexico Niño Dios, the baby God. So God went on to grow and mature, was here for us to witness and praise, to beg from and to kill. God is here because God wanted to be like you, to be known by you, to be with you, to be for you.

Are we able to comprehend this, to explain God, to shine a light on God? Of course not. Or not normally. But God did it this way, coming into our world, emptied into our life, so that we could know God, so we could encounter God. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Even when it seems we couldn’t have capacity to receive more, he keeps pouring into us.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he took on your flesh, so you may embody God’s presence for others, so that as you receive his body you may also live now and forever as the body of Christ in the world.

And God was cradled in his mother’s arms so that you may also know you are held in the bosom of the Father, close to God’s heart.

Capax. A miraculous gift, which you can keep uncovering and opening and treasuring. Merry Christmas.

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