Excerpts from Unfamiliar Territory by James Judge


Two nights later we were preparing for the station’s missionary Christmas program. One of the most important things short-term people can bring to a missionary setting is some extra energy. The just plain fatiguing, everyday cost of living overseas can take its toll on missionaries. Often, there isn’t a lot left over for the creative side of life. I got the idea the month of December to write a short Christmas program. It came to me after we had decorated the tree and I realized this was the first Christmas since we were married that we didn’t have our nativity set. I missed the old familiar ceramic characters. Cindy’s Aunt Pauline had given us one or two pieces a year during our first several years of marriage and it was as much a required piece of Christmas as the tree or the presents. So I began to write about them, somehow hoping to connect with them, I think. With Cindy’s help, the writings evolved into a small production. My idea was to create a series of short readings about the different characters there that night in Bethlehem. By writing from each character’s perspective, I was hoping for new eyes, maybe a fresh view of the manger. What was it like to experience His birth as an angel, or a king, or a little shepherd boy on his knees? What thoughts ran through Joseph’s mind as he looked into that manger, knowing he was to be the earthly father to the Son of God? After writing them, we recruited several friends to do the readings. The night of the program, we decorated the station meeting hall with hay and as much Christmas candlelight as we could muster. Before each person read their particular part, small children, dressed as that character, slowly walked forward through the middle of the room, while all the rest of us sang them to their places with a verse or two of a related carol. We Three Kings, Angels We Have Heard on High, Silent Night. The children took their parts very seriously as they made their way toward the makeshift manger sitting there beneath a tinfoil star. Jenny was Mary, and something about seeing her colored in the candle’s glow, a blue muslin shawl draped over her head and shoulders, so tiny, so serious, moving slowly, carefully, ever so carefully, toward the manger, moved me unexpectedly. She carried the doll that served as the baby Jesus with a sense of reverence and awe six year olds are not supposed to have. And when she laid him gently in the manger with such extreme, loving care, the room was struck to the core. The combination of the candlelight and the season, the sweet, familiar songs, the simplicity of the moment, the innocence of the children, and the power of the words combined to take us all closer to the heart of Christmas than I think anyone could have foreseen.


Come to the Cradle

by Jim Judge


Bewildered yet believing. Equal parts doubt and faith. Sometimes it’s very easy for us to identify with Mary.

Do you remember her song? Her spontaneous poetic lyric in response to the angel’s announcement that from her would come one who would be great, the son of the Most High, a king to rule over the house of Jacob, one whose kingdom would have no end? From her? An uneducated, simple, ordinary teenage girl who would from that moment on, never be ordinary again. For generation after generation she would be called blessed, favored, chosen.

And this murmuring of angels would be a thing that she would never be able to let go, but instead would “treasure these things and ponder them in her heart.” Her only conclusion… this great thing that had been done for her flowed from the heart of “ the mighty one”. And her emotional response to it all was a profound humility.

Humility is often our own response as we approach this season of His birth. We come tenderly to the manger, we tread lightly, almost unable to believe our own great privilege. The scriptures say Mary was “overshadowed by the Most High” and gave birth to something entirely good.  And at times this past year, so were we.  Maybe we gave birth to a moment of kindness, a touch, a time where we brought healing to a hurting soul, built a bridge, broke down a wall, made a home in our heart for another.

We look back over a year of God’s providence, of His care, of His extravagant prodigal love and we like Mary, wonder. We treasure the fact that he might use us, flawed and failing as we are. Impossible we think, but then we hear the angel’s words to Mary echo in our own hearts as they must have echoed in hers over and over and over again. “With God, nothing is impossible”.

Sometimes we come to his cradle humbly, overwhelmed by our own outrageous and blessed good fortune.


Joseph, a character in this story, as if almost in the shadows, somehow struggling for a sense of belonging, fighting hard the inadequacy he felt for the task that lay ahead.

I try to imagine how Joseph felt as he approached the cradle. The impossibility of it all must have been daunting. The staggering responsibility of being the earthly father of this heavenly child. I imagine him thinking, how can a man, especially a man like me so full of shadows and questions, be father to the son of God? How does one father his own creator? What do I know about raising a king?

Sometimes we approach the cradle just like Joseph, puzzled and pondering,  struggling with the task he has put before us.


The angels understood the full reality of what was set in motion by the birth of the Christchild better than anyone else there that night.  Their witness was especially valid because of their unique perspective. Positioned halfway between heaven and earth, they were in fact the perfect witnesses, no one had the complete view that the angels enjoyed that evening.  None knew better just what His coming meant. After all, they had been with Him at creation and in the halls of heaven. They had witnessed the oneness, the perfect abiding of the son with the father. These who had danced at creation and hidden their faces at the fall, now witnessed the opening of the final act of the divine drama of reconciliation. God reaching down in love with hands of flesh. “Immensity cloistered within a tiny womb” as John Donne described it. The uncreated one, who had no need, making himself needy, dependent on of all things, His own creation.

And so with the curtain going up, their response now was to break forth into their own kind of applause…..spontaneous, joyous singing. The gospel account says that the angel’s emotion could not be repressed, and that a great host of them suddenly overwhelmed with the reality of what this birth meant for eternity, broke out of their usual invisible form and announced the event with glory and light and song.

Some years Joy is our only conceivable response to Christmas. Sometimes unbridled, overflowing, spontaneous joy. Our smile is uncontrollable and the grace welling up within us is not containable, spilling out in full measure to those around us. You honestly feel like running through the streets like some sort of redeemed Scrooge or George Baxter in the final scene of “It’s a wonderful life shouting the good news of Christmas to everyone in sight. Some years the reality of just what His presence in our lives really means is so overwhelming that we are swept out of our usual reserve by a great compelling tide of joy.

Yes, sometimes when we come to his cradle it is with dancing and with joy.


 They were simple men, these rude shepherds, resting after a day like any other. They had spent a thousand nights just like this one. Sitting around the dancing campfire’s light, lying back against the soft green pillow of a grassy bank, peering out into an ink black heaven punctuated by a billion stars. Undoubtedly they talked of the day, exchanging stories, with the soft distant sounds of bleating sacrifice-bound sheep all around them. Then suddenly in their midst stood an angel of the Lord and immediately all about them a light shone that dwarfed the fire and the stars. The light was the glory of God himself. The angel saw their great fear and tried to still their trembling hearts. It was good news he bore. Not news of deserved judgment but of undeserved favor, of a savior, a savior for all people, a savior for them. No sooner had the words been spoken,  then suddenly the host of stars above them was outnumbered by a greater host of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth.”

After the song and the glory of the angels had faded, the shepherds response was a simple one. Now I don’t know about you but I might have been tempted to rub my eyes, look at the other shepherds and say “did you see that?!” But there was no questioning for these shepherds. They looked at one another and said “let’s go, let’s see this thing that has happened”. And as scripture says “they came in haste” to the manger.  That’s bible lingo for running like crazy men!! They took off, and left their sheep and their belongings and what looked like their senses and ran like excited children dropped off at Disneyland’s gate.

These bold, brash simple men approached the cradle with a bold and brash and simple faith.  They knew what they had been told, they came to see and lay claim to their part of the miracle of his coming, and then they told everyone who would listen as they danced their way home. They left glorifying and praising God.  All of Bethlehem knew what had happened to them.

There are years in our lives when we come upon His birth with the same bold, simple confidence demonstrated by those ancient shepherds. We come in Faith saying, “Yes, Lord, it has turned out just as you said it would. You promised and you delivered on that promise. You, lord are trustworthy.

Sometimes we come to his cradle, like the shepherds, with sure and simple faith.

The Wisemen

The Magi were specialists in astrology, medicine, and the natural sciences. Wisdom had made them wealthy. But it had also left them with a burning vacuum inside. As with so many honest men who study the creation, they were led to a deep desire to know the creator. They were familiar with the 600 year old messianic prophecies of another Magi, Daniel and were expecting some stellar sign of the Jewish Messiah’s birth.  Night after night they must have looked up into the sky, wanting to see beyond, wanting to peer into the mysteries of heaven itself. So when Christ’s natal star appeared, they were prepared. They knew this star of singular purpose signaled the birth of no ordinary king. The light of this star led to the very one deserving their worship.

We know only that they came from the East, came seeking the one foretold in the Jewish scriptures, the newborn king of the Jews. They themselves were not Jews, they were seekers. They went straight away, to Jerusalem to the royal palace, naturally, where else would you look for a king? But he was not there, instead a stable turned out to be his palace. And there they found the one to whom all their knowledge of the creation seemed to point. There they found the child, bathed in shekina starlight.

And the sight of the child evoked a common response from these men of wisdom. It evoked a deep, insatiable desire to give. They gave their treasures; costly frankincense, a king’s gold, and rare spices. But more importantly these men gave their worship, they gave their hearts, they gave themselves.

Sometimes it is an almost uncontrollable urge to give that overtakes us as we look down into the cradle and see the Christchild’s face. It’s all we can think of, the sheer wonder of His life-gift drives us to respond in kind and give. The costliness of God’s great gift to us makes us want to imitate our Father and give in a costly fashion to those around us. Yes sometimes we come to his cradle with our arms outstretched, offering all we hold dear. Our abilities, our possessions, our time, our children, our plans, our lives.

Yes, sometimes, like the wisemen, we come giving.

God the Father

There was another there that first night, one who is rarely pictured in any painting of the nativity; one for whom there is not character set aside in the manger scenes or plays. One we sometimes forget about when we think about the birth of Jesus. One whose heart was no less filled than Mary or Joseph. Yes, there was another there that night. Another who loved Him. Another father, God the Father.

Shift your focus away from the manger scene and instead, just for a moment look up. Travel in your mind’s eye to heaven. Think of a father standing at heaven’s door, bidding farewell to a son, knowing full well what lies ahead; a mysterious and holy blend of limitation, and pain, and earthly love, and laughter and tears and death, and separation, and glory. A father knowing that what awaited his son was not only Bethlehem, but also Calvary.  The Christchild’s first father knew that this moment of incarnation set in motion a great tragedy…..and an even greater triumph.

Sometimes, like God the Father we look down upon the child and see not only the cradle, but also the cross.  And at those times we come to the cradle solemnly, our own hearts both full and broken, in quiet reverence.


How do you come to his cradle this year? Humbly, fearfully, feeling inadequate, full of wonder, overpowered with joy, moved to give, solemn in heart? It’s a good question to ask, you know, because you see there was one more group of people we haven’t talked about tonight. They are conspicuous in their absence. They were consumed with the busyness of their own lives and missed His coming altogether. They somehow didn’t notice the star that blazed overhead. They had meals to cook and homes to clean. They somehow missed the wild shepherds rushing past them and wilder stories circulating of angelic concerts. Somebody had to keep on working, and with all those visitors in Bethlehem, hey, there was a shekel or two to be made.  They missed the magi’s later visit, even though we are told it disturbed all of Jerusalem, imagine what a stir it must have caused in Bethlehem. They were simply looking the other way. And the rumors of a Savior’s birth passed by them like so much inconsequential gossip. They thought it had nothing to do with their real lives. The sign in their heart flashed no vacancy, full up.

There are Christmas’s when we are more like this group than we would ever like to admit. Our lives crammed full of business and busyness and we find Christmas has come and gone and we have not approached His cradle at all.

So over the days that remain until the coming of the child king, ask yourself, “how will I approach the cradle-throne this year?”

You might approach unlike any we have talked about tonight. You might approach in a fashion that is completely and uniquely your own.

What is important is that you come, come and worship Christ, born that silent night.  (sing Silent Night)