A Christmas tradition kept in just about every Catholic home is the Nativity Scene or Crèche. The figurines representing the Holy Family and others who were present following the birth of Christ are presented in a manner that tells the story without words. We find small scenes under the Christmas tree and larger ones on front lawns or in our churches. Some are very simple, others remarkably ornate and detailed. Each in its own way reminds us of the first Christmas and centers us on the true meaning of the season, so often lost in the busy-ness.
This tradition goes back to none other than Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis wrote, “If you desire that we should celebrate this year’s Christmas together at Greccio, go quickly and prepare what I tell you; for I want to enact the memory of the Infant who was born at Bethlehem, and how He was deprived of all the comforts babies enjoy; how He was bedded in a manger on hay, between and ass and an ox. For once I want to see all this with my own eyes.” And so it was on Christmas Eve, 1223, that the Christmas crèche made its first appearance, complete with live animals.
Father Francis X. Weiser describes the event:
Greccio became a new Bethlehem. The night was radiant with joy. The crowds drew near and rejoiced in the novelty of the celebration. Their voices resounded from the woods, and the rocky cliff echoed the jubilant outburst. As they sang in the praise of God, the whole night rang with exultation. The Saint of God stood before the crib, overcome with devotion and wondrous joy. A solemn Mass was sung at the crib.
In the centuries that followed, people all over the world have embraced the crèche. One of my favorite things is how each culture has produced Nativity scenes that reflect their race and customs. We find the Holy Family depicted as French, Chinese, Mexican, African… truly capturing that Christ was born to save us all! If ever you have the opportunity to view a crèche collection, don’t miss it. Here in Montreal, Saint Joseph’s Oratory displays a large collection and I am sure there are many such collections elsewhere that are open to the public right now. Not only are they beautiful but they movingly remind us of how universal – how catholic – is the Church.
The crèche is catechetical; it contains much that we can teach our children (and learn from ourselves.) Saint Francis wanted to point out how the Christ Child was deprived of basic comforts, and I think this is something that is sometimes lost on us, as the manger scene has become romanticized. As a mother, I must say that I find nothing romantic about giving birth in a barn, no matter how soft the hay. Bunking in with farm animals is not appealing on any level, and I don’t even want to imagine the smell! But Jesus, by His presence, makes it beautiful, warm, and holy.
We can extrapolate that to the whole world and to our individual lives. All that is filthy, vulgar and profane is remade when Christ is present. When we invite Him into our lives, into our hearts, we are transformed by the power of His love. As we prepare ourselves during the last ten days of Advent, let us pray, “Come, Lord Jesus, come!” and invite Him to remake us in His image.