For as long as I can remember, my grandma has hand made a Christmas ornament each year for each one of her grandkids. This is a real labor of love since, at last count, she has 46 grandkids. She has always loved making things with her hands. This little collection of ornaments has become a real treasure to me, especially since my grandma had a stroke about 4 ½ years ago and she is no longer able to make them. The ornaments I have from the earlier years are pretty, but during the last 4-5 years before her stroke, she started making each of the pieces of the nativity. These are the ones I really love.
For the past few years, we have made these nativity ornaments part of the advent activities we do with our 4 year old, Jack. Each day, at the beginning of December, we pull out a different piece of the nativity—shepherd, wise man, star, angel—and we talk about its significance and hang it on the tree. This year, as we told the stories of the shepherds and wise men to Jack, I was particularly struck by the contrasting ways that they experienced the birth of Christ.
First, the wise men. They had studied, prayed and searched. They were watching the skies. They learned, and hoped, and waited. Then they saw the star. And when they did, they recognized it and they followed it. Even though they knew what the star meant when they saw it, they still had a long journey ahead of them before they actually saw Christ.
Contrast this with the story of the shepherds. They were going about their business, “watching their flocks by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.” I am sure that their shock came not just from seeing an angel, but because it was unexpected. They were just going about their lives, and they were presented with a miraculous vision. They immediately made the short journey to Bethlehem and saw the baby Jesus.
I think this is the way that Christ works in our lives too—sometimes we experience Christ’s grace after we have been waiting, watching, hoping and praying, and sometimes we are given moments of grace as we go about our everyday lives.
There are many examples of other “wise men” (and women) in the scriptures. In the Bible, we read about Simeon and Anna waiting at the temple to see the Savior. In the Book of Mormon, we read about Samuel the Lamanite prophesying of Christ years before his birth. In fact, much of the Book of Mormon is a story about people waiting and watching for Christ. In my life, these “wisemen” moments are things like:
- Receiving an answer to a long-term prayer
- Getting a piece of inspiration that helps answer a nagging question
- Feeling a small measure of peace about a situation that has been hard for a long time and may not ever be fully resolved in this life
- Feeling God’s help to make progress in overcoming a consistent weakness/sin
There are also examples of “shepherds” in the scriptures. In the Old Testament, we read about Moses and his experience with the burning bush. In the New Testament, we read about Paul on the Road to Damascus and about Mary Magdalene seeing the resurrected Christ. In the Book of Mormon, King Lamoni receives an unexpected but powerful witness. In my life, these “shepherd” moments are things like:
- Feeling prompted to go to the hospital when something turned out to be wrong in an otherwise normal pregnancy
- Having visiting teachers show up with dinner on a day when they could not have known that I had just found out I was miscarrying
- Sitting in a Church meeting, even sometimes when I don’t particularly feel like being there, and receiving a revelation meant specifically for me
- Feeling more fully the love of God when I see or hear something beautiful
Sometimes, we are like the wise men—we really seek after Christ. We work, ponder, pray, hope and anticipate. And sometimes, we are like the shepherds and Christ’s grace is instantaneous. Either way, His love is a gift. And it can change us.
So, how does the story end? We read that when the wise men saw the star, “they rejoiced with exceeding great joy” and they followed it. When they found Mary and Jesus, they “fell down and worshiped him.” We read that the shepherds, when the angels left, “came with haste and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger,” and they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen.”
Both the shepherds and the wise men recognized the light when it came, followed it, and received Christ into their lives. And I think it is safe to say that their lives were changed from that day forward.
One thing I want to point out is that, while there is definitely something to be said for waiting, learning and hoping these things are not prerequisites to experiencing the love of God (Christ) in our lives. God’s love for us is a constant and the miracle is that it is not tied to the amount of work we do. The waiting, learning and hoping can change us, but it doesn’t make God love us more. Our Heavenly Parents love us, and Christ atoned for us, just as we are—ordinary, human, with all our strengths and weaknesses. And that love changes us. It doesn’t just cover our sins and make us more presentable. It actually changes who we are, bit by bit.
It is hard to describe exactly how this change takes place—I’m not sure I really understand it. What I do know is that when I have these moments of grace, I feel inspired to do and be better. And my capacity to do and be better is expanded. Sometimes I feel like Nephi, who was shown a vision of the birth of Christ by an angel. The angel asks, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” (Or, “Do you know how God will be manifest on earth?”) Nephi’s response is a favorite of mine. He says, “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” Like Nephi, we may not know the meaning of all things right now, but we can know and experience the love of God right now, individually and personally.
This Christmas season, as we strive to put Christ at the center of our celebration, it is my hope that we can look for, recognize, and appreciate these moments of grace—whether they come after we have been waiting, hoping, and praying or unexpectedly, as we go about our everyday lives. Either way, I know that God meets us where we are—wherever we are—and that Christ’s grace is sufficient. I am grateful for the ways I have experienced it in my life. At this time of year, I am especially grateful for the birth of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, him who is mighty to save.