The Altar at the Manger

IMG_0017Every Christmas growing up, my family and I would make a little altar on Christmas Eve and hold a short midnight service together before going to bed.  The altar was really just a red tablecloth over the coffee table with some candles, some evergreen boughs, and a Bible.  We’d sing carols and take turns reading the Christmas story from Luke.  After so many years observing this tradition, we could recite our parts by memory. And there were in that region, shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night.  She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn.  And there were with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace and goodwill to men.”  To which my mother would usually add “and to the rest of us girls, too.”

And so, for this Christmas video, I thought about reading some of the old, familiar words that we hear every year at Christmas.  They are comforting and encouraging and remind us that extraordinary things can happen in the most ordinary times.  One minute you’re just sitting there, doing your job on a night like any other, and the next minute, God takes you by surprise and tells you that everything is about to change.  That you have new work to do, that you must stand and leave the hillside and walk to a new place, a humble place, and kneel at an altar of wood and straw and worship something smaller and incomprehensibly greater than yourself. It must have been tremendously humbling, walking down that hill, knowing that the miracle you’ve just experienced is nothing to what you are about to see.  I imagine the shepherds looking at each other, thinking “Me? In the presence of a king?  Look at me!” And making futile efforts to prepare themselves to approach this little manger with no gift but their own adoration.

And that image brought a completely different scripture to mind:

It’s from the book of Mark:  If you are offering your gift on the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

What a powerful, uncomfortable, amazing thing to hear.  Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled. But what does it mean to seek peace with God if we’re not willing to seek peace with anyone else?  It’s like mixing today’s banquet with last night’s leftovers. I don’t think that those words appear in Scripture to make us uncomfortable.  I think they are there to make us free.  To come to the altar with a heart that has emptied itself of hate or resentment is to come ready to be filled with something new and beautiful.

I made a list of relationships in my life that need some degree of reconciliation.  It’s not a long list, but it matters.  The burden of it lingers everytime I come to the altar.  I have asked God too many times to change those situations without asking Him to change ME.  Without being willing to humble myself, see the dirt on my own robes, so to speak, and be the first to seek a loving solution.  This year, before Christmas is over, I want to do what I can – whether by a phone call or a letter or in person – to apologize – or to forgive  – and be ready to approach the Christmas manger with a gift that only I can give – just a little more peace on earth, a lot more goodwill, and more glory than ever to God in the highest.  And if you want to join me there, God bless you.  You will be in my prayers, as always.  Merry Christmas.

Love, Martha

Post Script

This Christmas Martha Williamson made a list of relationships in need of reconciliation – either to forgive – or to apologize – so she can approach the Christmas altar with a heart emptied of hate or resentment and ready to be filled with peace, love and goodwill.