OK, this title is a teeny bit misleading by design. It's not really about "the Christmas Present," as in this year's Christmas of 2017. It's about THE Christmas present, a most amazing gift that was presented to me by my mother this evening. I've been given many great gifts over the years, but this one surpasses all the others.
What is it? you ask. A new car, a fully furnished lake house, a one hundred per cent foolproof guide to getting my books on the New York Times best-seller list? Nope, none of the above (although if any of you have that last one, feel free to send it to me!). No, what my Mom gave me was a Bible. Not even a new Bible, a used one. As a matter of fact, it is more used than just about anything in my house other than my Indian arrowheads and my small collection of Roman relics!
You see, in 1834, a 27 year old Kentuckian immigrated to the province of Northern Mexico known as Tejas. His name was Obadiah Smith, and he brought along his wife Elizabeth and a brand new Bible they had purchased in New Orleans, LA before crossing the border. (Illegally, I might add, since under the Decree of April 6, 1830, immigration from the USA to Texas had been suspended. That's right - I'm a descendant of the ORIGINAL "wetbacks"!) Obadiah was my grandfather's grandfather, and now I am the fifth in a long line of Smiths to own this treasured family possession.
As a child, I loved this Bible. I thumbed through it, looking at the list of births, marriages, and deaths recorded in the section between the Old and New Testaments. I stared in wonder at the recorded births of two family slaves, one born in 1850, the other in 1853. My Grandfather Smith, whom I never met (he was born in 1889 and died in 1959, four years before I was born), remembered those former slaves, now in their 40's, coming across the border from Louisiana to visit their former mistress, his wife Elizabeth, at Thanksgiving every year when he was little. They always brought him presents, and he looked forward to their arrival. (This is not an attempt on my part to put some sort of rosy tint on the "Peculiar Institution," it's just a family memory my Dad passed on from his Dad.) I also enjoyed trying to figure out an inscription in the back, written in fading pencil, of some sort of home remedy for headaches.
When I was around ten, I drew a treasure map on a piece of notebook paper and stained it yellow with tea so it would look old and then secreted it for several weeks in the pages of this old Bible. Then I "found" it and tried to convince my siblings, all older than me, that it was the real deal. I'm not sure what gave it away - the fact that I used a ball point pen, or that the paper was, in fact, official H.R. Puffinstuff stationary! (Fellow late-stage Baby Boomers will get that reference instantly, for the rest of you, there is Google!)
Now as a grown man, I look at this old book and think of all the history that has unfolded since my grandfather's grandfather bought it for three dollars and fifty cents (quite a large sum in those days, I might add!) so long ago. Andrew Jackson was President in 1834; thirty-seven men have held that office since then. (No, that's not a math error, Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms and was both the twenty-second and twenty-fourth President of the United States!) This Bible was loaded into a wagon headed for the Louisiana border during the Runaway Scrape phase of the Texas Revolution, and was sitting on a shelf or table in my family's home during the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the War on Terror. It has survived the Panics of 1837, 1873, 1893, and the Great Depression. There were twenty-four states in the Union when this Bible was purchased, now there are fifty.
Abraham Lincoln was a struggling storekeeper when Obadiah bought this book; Queen Victoria was an unknown teenage great-niece of the popular "Sailor King" William IV of England, and France was still a monarchy under King Louis Philippe. Winston Churchill would not be born for another forty years. All the gold in California was still buried in the foothills above Sacremento, and Santa Anna had just wriggled his way into power as the President of Mexico. Much of the world was still unexplored by Europeans, and the technologies that would transform the nineteenth century were either not yet invented (the telegraph and the camera) or in their infancy (the locomotive and the assembly line).
All this history and more has come and gone since this book was purchased by an anxious young newlywed on his way to make a new life in the undeveloped, mostly unexplored territory of Texas. One can never truly own such a piece of history - we can guard it, protect it, care for it, and then pass it down to the next generation. My Dad's wishes were clear - since I am the pastor in this generation of my family, I am to be the caretaker of this sacred text for the duration of my life. When I die, my nephew Thomas, the only one of the ten Smith grandchildren who will carry on the family name, will have it next. From there, it will pass to a generation yet unborn.
But this Christmas, it belongs to me and my house for the first time. It is a gift that is awe-inspiring, humbling, and one that reminds me of the sacred event we celebrate this season. The pages may be yellowed with age, the language archaic, and the print tiny, but Luke Chapter Two still reads:
"Unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."