For Christians the world over Christmas is the most important day of the year, right alongside Easter. On one holiday the birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated, on the next, his resurrection. Though be it far removed from big city lights and costly tabernacles, members of the Tyler River of Life Pentecostal Church of God in Tyler City celebrated their faith, beliefs, and the importance of the significance of the story of Christmas by building a nativity scene next to the church. And not just any nativity scene-a nativity scene the entire community is proud to call attention to.
Not wanting to go the traditional or typical route, months of preparation went into the building of the lovingly crafted display featuring Mary and her baby, Joseph, attentive shepherds, and livestock placed in a field for all to see.
"Typical nativities have inadvertently diminished the significance of the story of Christmas by being typical," said Paula Keplinger, who worked on this labor of love along with countless others in the community. "Don't get me wrong, I love nativity scenes and have at least a half dozen in my house and yard. But the very familiar can become invisible, or at least overlooked. And the gift of our Savior should never be overlooked."
Members of the Tyler River of Life Pentecostal Church of God in Tyler City celebrated their faith, beliefs, and the importance of the significance of the story of Christmas, by building a nativity scene next to the church in Tyler City.
In other words, they wanted something special, something meaningful, something worthy. So they built a nativity scene to meet those standards, which was a work of progression, like the Christmas story itself.
"Of course, even the very familiar does not have to be overlooked, if we purpose ourselves to see it," Keplinger said. "As we read the Christmas story in the second chapter of Luke, we considered the shepherds in the fields at night, guarding their flocks through the lambing season, and a picture began to emerge: many sheep, many shepherds. Kenny and Jennifer Mason graciously allowed us to stage our interpretation in their field, and so, the first Sunday of Advent found a flock in the field being tended by shepherds."
"Then, think of Mary and Joseph. They made a 95-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. That would be a long trip on a donkey, especially for a pregnant woman. As they approached Bethlehem, they may have passed near the very shepherds who would be their guests in a few days. The second Sunday of Advent found the young couple in the background, traveling to Joseph's home town."
Each week the flock was moved closer to the road in the Mason's field, to symbolize the progression of events. By the third Sunday of Advent, Mary and Joseph were nearing a stable. By Christmas Eve, the traveling Mary and Joseph were changed out for the group at the stable.
"Finally, on Christmas Eve, the culmination of a holy plan, promised for millennia, was lovingly represented by our nativity: Mary holding her baby boy, Joseph standing in his sacred role as husband and dad, shepherds gazing in awe at the confirmation of the message they had heard out in the field, a manger to rest the King of kings."
More than 100 hours by several community members went into the design, construction, painting, placing, and moving this special life sized nativity. Members of the congregation worked together for months to bring their vision to fruition. While the Keplinger family certainly volunteered many hours to the project, they were in no way laboring alone. The work on this special nativity was truly a community effort with many hours dedicated to the project not only by the congregation of the church, but by neighbors, friends, and entire families. From the design, to cutting out the figures, donating time and supplies, painting, setting up and moving the nativity day in and day out, and even secret angels supplying food for the workers, this project was indeed a labor love by all.
To attempt to name each and every person who gave of themselves, their talent, skills and time to this project, would be impossible, because there were so many hands involved.
"We don't want to leave anyone's name out that helped," said Keplinger. "But it was such a big project and it took so long, there is no way I or anyone else could possibly remember everyone's name. It was a community effort and we all did it together."
"Everyone got on board with this because we all wanted to say some things to our community, to speak of the amazing love of God that is expressed in the Christmas story, and we wanted to say it in a big, fresh way that could be heard. We poured our best into this project in response to a loving God who gave His best to us, and we made it as beautiful as we could because it represents the most beautiful of gifts."
The nativity was scheduled to be left up until after Jan. 6, or "Epiphany" which celebrates the three wise men's visit to baby Jesus. After this event, the figures will be lovingly put away until next year.
And next year? Will the project grow, will more figures be added, will the nativity be added to?
"It has been such a rewarding endeavor that we're thinking it might grow," Keplinger said. "Obviously, the whole story is not yet represented. Angels attended on that great night. A year or so later, while Mary and Joseph were still living in Bethlehem, sages from the Orient brought gifts and homage to the young King."
So, what's next?
"We'll just have to see where the Lord leads us in this labor of love."