When I was a little boy, people told me that the true spirit of Christmas was the spirit of giving; but I didn’t believe them. I knew that the true spirit of Christmas was getting. I could hardly wait until Christmas morning when my mother would stand at the door to the living room that separated me from a wonder of toys. She would peek through and tell me Santa had been here and express her surprise that he had given me so much. Then I was obliged to eat breakfast, make my bed, brush my teeth, and get dressed. The anxiety and anticipation this caused is impossible to describe. By the time I attacked the neatly wrapped packages and saw the delights they contained, I was filled with a joy and relief I have not found comparable to any joy on earth.
I remember the year I grew up. That was the year Christmas lost its magic and I began to say, like the adults around me, “The true spirit of Christmas is giving.” I found there was satisfaction in giving. But the magic never returned, and each year as the tree was decorated and the lights were hung on the front porch I wondered if Christmas wasn’t a whole lot better when I thought more about what I received and less about what I gave.
The years went on and I became a man, giving to my children and secretly envying their sheer delight at receiving the marvelous gifts of Christmas.
A few years ago I read very carefully the story of the first Christmas in the Americas. To my wonder and delight I discovered I had been right as a child- the true spirit of Christmas was the spirit of receiving. Since then, the wonder of Christmas has returned.
Let me take you in your imagination back to Zarahemla in the year 5 b.c. and let us live together the most marvelous Christmas story ever written.
The year 5 b.c. is an interesting and challenging time to be a Christian. Our generation is an unstable one. We have seen the people shift from wickedness to righteousness and back to wickedness again. We have seen the slow erosion of our laws until Nephi II, our great prophet and chief judge, gives up the seat of government, weary with his inability to cause positive reform. He decides the only way to reform and save his people is in “bearing down in pure testimony,” as his ancestor Alma had done.
We have seen the rise of the Gadianton robbers. They have filled the judgment seats. They have assassinated their opponents, and they wield great power. About ten years ago we saw Nephi bring the people to their knees in repentance through a prolonged famine that ended for a time the self-destructive wars of our people. But the people quickly forgot the lesson and have been slipping ever so quickly back into their materialistic and proud ways.
Most marvelous of all, we have witnessed the end of an era of interracial wars between the Nephites and Lamanites. As youth, roughly twenty-five years ago, we witnessed the conversion of the entire Lamanite nation through the preaching of Nephi and his brother Lehi.
We are adults now with families. Nephi is older, though still actively leading the Church and preaching the gospel. But there are dark clouds on the horizon. The strength of the Gadianton robbers is growing again, and the intensity of faith seems to be waning in the Church. As prosperity flourishes, the lessons of the past are forgotten. It is an interesting and challenging time to live.
Recently there has been a Lamanite prophet named Samuel preaching in the streets and markets of Zarahemla. Though we don’t know it, he is about to test our faith and the faith of all the Christians in the land.
The Nephites, unwilling to listen to the exhortations of Samuel, have cast him out; but as we enter the city, we notice a large crowd in a state of great excitement gathered near the walls. There on the wall stands Samuel. He has returned. His message has not changed from his earlier warnings.
An acquaintance of ours approaches us as we listen. He is one who has relinquished his faith and is caught up in the materialistic greed of a Gadianton society.
“What do you think of this Lamanite?” he asks us.
“He is a prophet,” we answer.
“So he proclaims. Then you believe in his predictions? ”
“We accept all the words of a prophet.”
As we listen, Samuel begins to speak of Christ, predicting his birth after five years pass. This is not a new or strange prophecy, for Lehi predicted the Savior would be born six hundred years after he left Jerusalem. Those with faith and a calendar know He will come in five years, but our acquaintance asks us, “Do you believe this, that Christ will come after five years?”
“Yes,” we reply. “It has been prophesied from the very beginning by many prophets.” Our acquaintance comments with a mocking tone about the “convenience” of having Christ born across the sea, in another land, making true verification impossible. And had Samuel not continued under the inspiration of the Lord, our faith would not be tried; but Samuel continued.
“And behold, this will I give unto you for a sign at the time of his coming; for behold, there shall be great lights in heaven, insomuch that in the night before he cometh there shall be no darkness, insomuch that it shall appear unto man as if it was day.
“Therefore, there shall be one day and a night and a day, as if it were one day and there were no night; and this shall be unto you for a sign; for ye shall know of the rising of the sun and also of its setting; therefore they shall know of a surety that there shall be two days and a night; nevertheless the night shall not be darkened; and it shall be the night before he is born.
“And behold, there shall a new star arise, such an one as ye never have beheld; and this also shall be a sign unto you.”
Let us pause a moment in our narrative. I have often wondered how I would have accepted that pronouncement. I am sure I would have looked at the sun with a certain uneasiness. I am sure I would have watched it set that night and felt with a growing fear the darkness settle over the land. I cannot think of a single prophetic utterance in all of scripture so completely remarkable as this one. What boldness and courage it took to utter it! What faith and courage it took to receive it!
As we try to comprehend the impact of this prophecy, our acquaintance, with a certain delight, turns and asks, “You certainly don’t believe that, do you?”
We hesitate. If only Nephi II had uttered it, not a Lamanite prophet newly arrived in Zarahemla. Our acquaintance notices our hesitation.
“Because of course,” he continues, “it is absolutely and utterly impossible for the sun to go down and it remain as light as day. You know that, don’t you?”
I would like to believe that I would have had the faith and the whispered assurances of the Spirit so that I could have answered the critics and the mockers. I would have wanted to say, “Yes, I believe Samuel has spoken under the direction of the Holy Ghost and that this sign will come.”
Perhaps our skeptical friend would have answered, “Then you’re a bigger fool than I imagined. But for your sake I hope it comes.”
There is the hint of a veiled threat in his words that we do not yet comprehend. We listen with uneasiness to the rest of Samuel’s message, but the words “one day and a night and a day” haunt our thoughts. The crowd becomes more and more agitated. Suddenly they are shooting arrows and slinging stones at the figure on the wall; but they cannot hit him, and the words of Samuel continue. When they approach to bind him, his message delivered, Samuel leaps from the wall to return to his own people. “He was never heard of more among the Nephites.”
What reflection is contained in that single last line in Helaman! In the coming months and years, how often would we have wanted to hear Samuel assure us that his words were inspired, that he knew the sign would come, that he was sure of God’s promise and the coming of the Christ child? But he would not be seen among the Nephites again.
How often would our scorning friends pick at our faith, during those months and years, seeking to enlarge the tiny doubts we try to keep from entering our minds.
“Where is your Lamanite prophet?” they would ask us. “Why do you suppose he’s never returned? He didn’t stay to see the sun set, night after night, did he? But I imagine even a Lamanite prophet knows when he has uttered foolishness. Give up this ridiculous belief. It will always be dark when the sun sets. How can it be otherwise?”
The Lord knows how to test his people. There is, however, one thing that we would have had on our side-Nephi. He is still the prophet, and he assures the faithful “of things which must shortly come.” The Nephi to whom God gave all power is with us. The Nephi who humbled these same people with famine leads us. The Nephi who stood face to face with the corrupt lawyers and Gadianton robbers, predicting their assassinations, revealing their evil plans, and bearing witness of their sins, stands at our head. With Nephi our fears are calmed; but every night we watch the sun set, and every night the darkness returns.
When would the fears and doubts, the straining for faith, have become almost unbearable? The first year? The second? The third? What would have been our thoughts as the opposition grew and their mocking became increasingly threatening? How strong would our faith have been when the fifth year began and the sun set and the night came? How would our fears have increased when the power of the unbelievers became great, and they proclaimed a day on which all the believers who did not renounce their faith would be put to death if the sign didn’t come? I wonder how I would have felt as I watched the twilight deepen night after night and thought of my children sleeping and the fate that awaited them if the night grew dark one time too many.
More and more we would have turned to Nephi to hear his calm assurance of faith-“The sign will come, the sign will come.” But there would have been other voices; and though we would have tried to shut them out, at night in the stillness they would have come and repeated the question asked so often, “How can there be light when there is no sun?”
Sometime during that last year a new factor enters the test. Nephi II, the strength of our people, is taken by the Lord. He gives his son Nephi III charge concerning the plates and “departs out of the land, and whither he went no man knoweth.”
How would this knowledge have greeted us? What doubts would it have sparked anew? If Nephi II had died, we could have mourned his loss; but there would have been no awakened opportunity for doubt. But when he just disappears, it is hard to deny new suspicions.
“Where is your great prophet Nephi?” the unbelievers might have challenged. “Has he abandoned you to your deaths as Samuel did? Why do you think he left the way he did, sneaking into the wilderness to save his own life? Even he knows the sign is an impossibility. Are you still so stubborn in your old traditions that you can’t face reality? There will be no Christ!”
On and on the mocking and challenging continue, and as we eagerly wait for the sunset each evening the smiles of silent reproach widen on the faces of those who anticipate the appointed day of destruction.
How would we have felt those last weeks as we “watched steadfastly for that night and that day”? Would not our prayers have been fervent and deep and full of meaning? How does it feel to have hope dashed with every setting sun?
How would we have felt the last days while our enemies prepared themselves for the coming slaughter? On the last day Nephi, with deep concern, kneels and cries “mightily” for his people. The Lord speaks peace to him saying, “On this night shall the sign be given.” But Nephi cannot spread those words of comfort in a single day. The people’s faith will be tested to the last rays of the setting sun.
The scriptures are not clear on the method of destruction planned for the believers. Perhaps they were rounded up into the center of their cities or outside the walls where at sunset they would be put to the sword. Perhaps mob rule prevailed and every man sought out his neighbors. As believers, with our families we watch from our homes the setting sun. If given a final chance that afternoon to save our lives by renouncing our belief in the Savior, would we have done so? Would we have thought that if the sign didn’t come, life would have no meaning, for a life without Christ is no life at all?
Holding the hands of our families we step into the open light of late afternoon and watch what may be our last sunset. There is that moment when the sun hangs trembling at the brink of the horizon. It slips out of sight. There is a moment of hesitation, watching, hoping, and questioning. “Is it getting dark? Are our lives forfeit?” Then there is that moment when the realization enters our hearts that the darkness is not gathering. It is getting, on the contrary, lighter and lighter.
If we can picture that moment, if we can transport ourselves past barriers of time, place, and culture, we will hear a sound. It is the sound of Christmas. It is the sound of weeping, the sound of gratitude, the sound of joy and triumph and faith renewed and vindicated. It is the sound of mankind receiving with a love beyond words the incomparable gift of the Son of God into the world. It is the true spirit of Christmas-which isn’t the spirit of giving at all, but the spirit of receiving, receiving the love of our Father and His Son, and in its reception with thankfulness giving God the only gift He seeks, that of a broken heart and contrite spirit. What a moment and what a sound that is! May its sound ring through all our Christmases. May we hear it again and again.
What a night that would have been! With what “wondering awe” would we have searched the sky as the hours passed and the light grew as bright as noonday. We would have gathered our children around us and reverently taught them the meaning of a night with no darkness. We would have gathered in small groups of joy and happiness, almost not daring to believe what our eyes testified was true. Perhaps we would have sung the hymns of our belief. It would have been a night never to be forgotten.
With what emotion would we have greeted the rising sun after long hours of rejoicing? And when the star appeared, our wonder would have been born anew. I do not believe that an unlearned farm boy from New York could create such a story. I do not believe any kind of fiction could describe in such simple and undramatic language a moment, a time, a test, a faith, as sublime as the Nephite Christmas story. There was such a night of wonder and gratitude.
As a child I felt the wonder of Christmas in a worldly way. As a man the wonder has turned to a deep appreciation and reverence. It is my hope that we may feel this wonder all of our lives, especially on those nights when we watch the sunsets that settle the world into darkness.
S. Michael Wilcox is the author of To See His Face and Choosing the Fulness: Wickedness or Righteousness.