by Sarah Shaul
The Lord appeared to Abram…. So [Abram] built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him. - Genesis 12:7 NIV
One of my favorite Christmas decorations is an altar. You probably have one, too, although you might call it a nativity set. To me, however, the small stable scene is akin to the pre-tabernacle earthen or stone altars built to commemorate a profound encounter with God.1 The early altars were tangible items meant to remind the individual, his family, and future generations of God’s provision and presence. This modern day altar, in the guise of a small vignette, is no different.
Gazing at Mary’s serene face, I recall how she first encountered God as a young woman and eventually again as a mother. God’s messenger, Gabriel, arrives to announce her pregnancy. Nine months later, as a result of His presence, her life is forever changed, and she becomes the mother to the One Who Saves.
Next to her stands reliable Joseph. He was a man “faithful to the law” (Matthew 1:19 NIV): a devoted and religious man, I imagine. God appears to him as he wrestles with the law. This encounter is so powerful, faithful Joseph forgoes the religious standard (which instructed him to divorce Mary) and follows God’s instruction instead.
The noble and wise Magi encountered God through their knowledge, seeking and eventually finding His presence through study of the stars. The desire to know more--to see Him--draws them away from their homes, for weeks or even months, toward a foreign land.
I imagine the poor and humble shepherds did not believe they would ever be the recipients of God’s presence. They were likely smelly, dirty, and uncouth, not desirable company for most villagers, much less royalty. However, God does not care about the world’s labels, so the undesirable shepherds became the messengers to announce the birth of the King.
The nativity scene is not merely a reminder of each figures’ past life-altering encounter with God but also our own. Perhaps, like Mary, you’ve encountered God in the labors of motherhood. Or you may relate to Joseph, having found God in moments of religious observance and tradition. Maybe during times of study you had a powerful, divine discovery, the same as the Magi. You may connect with the shepherds, surprised by God’s presence, never believing He would choose you.
May your well-loved nativity set and the recollections it sparks not simply generate happy memories. Instead, may they remind you of--and once again fill you with--God’s presence, provision, goodness, and love. May you be encouraged during this busy season by the quiet, unassuming scene on your shelf, remembering how God continues to appear to all His people: women and men, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, me and you.