Stop for a second, consider the standard manger scene. Consider Mary with blond hair and blue eyes, Joseph, fair with brown hair, the babe pink. Consider how the wise men look. Consider their names - exotic names - not Mary and Joseph, but Gaspar, Melchoir, Balthasar. Consider the gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. Epiphany is fundamentally different from incarnation.

Incarnation - the arrival of Jesus on Christmas Day - is the reminder that God loves us. We have always known this - the Israelites are His children. That baby is God's way of taking what we know, and leaving us changed. Incarnation takes our circumstances, which looked ordinary, and makes them utterly extraordinary. Think, just for a second, of the incongruity of the king of glory, the saviour of the world coming in a cave, filled with muck. The Messiah, born in this way is a surprise. We are caught up the wonder and the glory and the majesty - all in a stable - and we are both surprised that God is so mindful of us, and joyful that he is. Epiphany - the arrival of the wise men with gifts, to celebrate the babe - is the celebration that this incarnation - God among us - is anything but normal.

Christmas was a grind this year, in the truest sense of the word. Everything was hard. Christmas, at it's heart, should be about joy and surprise. I like to tell myself that most around me didn't realize that this was a struggle. That, at least on the surface, I looked happy. That dinner came off without a hitch, my guests enjoyed themselves. But none of it was natural, easy. Every gift purchased, every piece of baking, every decoration, every Christmas card, every stupid holiday commerical, they were a grind. Another thing on a to-do list. None of it enjoyable. Not even the carols. No surprise. Certainly no joy.

I took down the Christmas stuff on Saturday. It was, a relief, a weight off my shoulders. I felt, as I put stuff away, wrapping it in paper, tucking it away for another year, that I was giving myself permission to stop trying so darn hard. The calendar tells me that Christmas happened, but I'm not so sure I felt it in my heart. I'm not so sure my soul rejoiced. I am - like all who grieve at Christmas - more drained, more tired, more spent, there is little magic in my heart right now. I'm not sad to see the season go.

On Saturday, with the ashes of Christmas in boxes around me, wondering where the spirit of the season had gone, I read M's letter to me once more. I looked at the wonderful snow globe she dropped off.

I wept for your loss. I wept for our loss, I wept because it wasn't fair. I wept because I couldn't imagine the pain. I wept because I loved my own son, and knew how unimaginably horrific it would be to lose him. I wept because of the absolute tragedy of it all.

Incarnation is perhaps best described, understood, as a new take on an old thing. In a letter, reminding me that I am loved, and my son is loved. In a sudden moment of clarity, as I watched the snow in a snow globe swirl.

I understand in a way I did not.

Old things are made new. All things will be made perfect. When God came to the earth, that quiet act of devotion and service and love, it changed the face of history.

The Word Made Flesh.

The Light in the Darkness.

Celebration. Joy. Surprise. Wonder.

From the bottom of my heart, thanks M.