My parents possess an antique German Christmas nativity scene that has been in our family now for many years. It is this nativity scene that mostly profoundly fills the imagery of my mind when I think back to childhood Christmases. I am glad that in the recesses of my heart it is not gifts, stockings, or even the gleam of Christmas trees that holds there sway of my memories. I am glad that Christmas for me growing up was ruled over by a poor little King, not worldly riches.
One of life’s paradoxes is that the more closely engrained a part of our lives something is, the less likely we sometimes are to ask why we do what we do and when we began doing it. One such major instance of this for many of us is likely that of nativity scenes, or crèches, endeared to them though we are.
It is understandable. The seasonal Advent/Christmastide displaying of nativity scenes, which at the bare minimum entails the newborn Child Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in statuary displays from big to small is utterly pervasive in American and European culture from late November on into January each and every year. It is richly beneficial, I believe, for those who hold nativity displays so near dear as do I to know the background story of how nativities became so beloved to many Europeans, Americans and others worldwide.
There of course is the most obvious fact gazing at us straight in the face that nativity scenes have as their first and foundational cause of being the Gospel accounts of Christ, without which we would be in the dark of this old world’s night without the inspired Word of God’s Good News that depicts for us so vividly the infancy narratives of Christ Jesus in Luke’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel.
Considering many theological divides in Christianity exist today, it is both moving and encouraging to see households, from the most Catholic to the most Protestant (and even some non-Christian), from the most to the least devout, from some of the greatest sinners to the greatest saints all in practically one accord, partake of celebrating Advent and Christmas with the presence of the nativity scene. It is an act of religious devotion yes, but also a cultural manifestation of Christianity’s most tender and sweet mystery. Who decided to begin displaying nativity scenes in homes, in public squares, in churches and on church lawns? Rather, we should ask, what was the impetus? Who brought forth such inspiration?
In short, the magnificent person of Saint Francis of Assisi is widely considered the beginning of the nativity scene tradition. In 1223, we find the great saint in the little town of Greccio, Italy, northeast of Rome which Francis had come to love, and which as Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out, is a place that perhaps for Francis became like Bethlehem, a lowly place then of poverty and humility but also of natural beauty. The Christ Child was very near to the heart of Saint Francis and he greatly desired a palpable very visual way to experience, to make truly present, the reality of the first Christmas where our Lord Jesus Christ was laid in a manger. With the approval of the pope, on Christmas with Saint Francis desiring also to inflame the inhabitants of Greccio with a love of the Christ Child, he thus had there assembled a manger, with straw, and an ass and an ox present. It is very much worth noting here that though not referenced in regards to the birth of Christ in the New Testament, the ox and the ass actually do appear in a prophecy commonly regarded as referring to that first Christmas night per Isaiah 1:3 in the Old Testament that scholars have noted, including Pope Benedict XVI.
Celano was the first biographer of Saint Francis, being commissioned by Pope Gregory IX to write about the life of the saint. Both his biography and the later biography written by Saint Bonaventure recount the Christmas Crib miracle. Saint Francis wanted to awaken in the inhabitants of Greccio, and we might say, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that he wanted in this way to set not only Greccio but the whole world on fire with love of the Christmas mysteries. He wanted people moved to great devotion and an uncontainable love of God Incarnate as a tiny child who comes to us in an astonishingly accessible manner. And so as that holy night of Christmas unfolded, as people gathered, as the light of what was likely many candles and lanterns blazed, as prayers and hymns resounded, as Masses were celebrated there, Saint Francis preached to the people of the Christ Child, and so overcome with tender love for Him as he was, he referred to Jesus as “The Babe of Bethlehem”, unable to say his name in his awestruck loving devotion.
The nobleman named John, had a vision of the Babe of Bethlehem, Christ the Lord, becoming manifest before his eyes in the humble crib there placed, and that as he gazed at the motionless child, Saint Francis of Assisi embraced the Christ Child, awakening him. The vision has been said to have been so very fitting for the fact that so many people had forgotten the Christ Child in their hearts, had let Christ die in their hearts and thus he lay in the manger motionless in the vision, and yet here conversely, in battle against this loss of Faith, loss of fervor, loss of love, was Saint Francis awakening people again to the Babe of Bethlehem, bringing the lifeless Christ Child as he appeared in the vision of John back to life in the hearts of men. Later, it was reported that straw that was taken from the manger took on miraculous qualities both regarding the health of livestock and of mothers in labor among other wonders per the biography done by Celano (It is another interesting note that some crèches today consist only of the Child Jesus statue laying in a manger and one tradition involves each person laying a piece of straw in the manger to prepare for the Christ Child. In some circles you will also find the taking back of the straw, now blessed with Holy Water, to keep as a momento of Christmas.) It was from this point that the rich tradition of nativity scenes began to spread like a blazing Christmas fire across the Christian World, manifesting in living nativity displays, and as we know also so wonderfully, in nativity scenes great and small, humbly created to the intricately sculpted in millions upon millions of homes, in and outside churches, and blessedly, even in public squares and courthouse plazas, where they are perhaps most needed.
Not until the 4th Century had Christians come to celebrate the birth of Christ in any serious capacity. It was then that Christmas replaced the Winter Pagan Celebration of the Sun God with that of the True Son of God, the true light that enlightens the hearts of us all. Indeed, it is very much recognized that in order of sacred priority, it is Easter from which developed the liturgical year, and it is around Easter, our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection in his conquering of Sin and Death that the year of Faith revolves. And yet, as time has passed, and as the Holy Spirit has guided the Church into all Truth, only over the centuries did there emerge an illumination of the Faithful, of the Church, of the tenderness of a focus on the Christ Child. So it is that the Christmas mysteries have for many a Christian become the heart of the spiritual life.
Like the Star Of Bethlehem, leading them, and we can imagine probably growing more intense as the Wise Men drew towards Bethlehem, towards the Sacred Heart of the Christ Child, so too as the years draw onward and time passes perhaps the faithful’s intimate love of the Christ Child, the source of the light in our lives, waxes more and more intense, more luminous, more piercing as the time of the Second coming marches ever nearer (whenever that day it is, decades, centuries, millennia away though it may be). For here, at Christmas, we see God humbling himself to the point of being a defenseless babe, yet exceedingly approachable for us, not coming in all power holding court on a throne, but laid in the lowliest of dwellings, a manger within a cave, giving us full access to his merciful, patient, kind and loving Sacred Heart that so desires us to love him in return.
When the Christ returns in all his glory, let us pray that he finds faith on earth, that he finds peace on earth. I pray that it be upon a midnight clear indeed, on a Christmas Eve, when, with the fires burning low and Christians at peace with their Lord in their hearts, that under their Christmas Trees, or on mantles and bookshelves in their homes, the sweet beauty of nativity scenes are far and wide in every dwelling place found, the tender affection of the hearts of mankind for the God who saves us thus manifesting, awaiting the God who comes from an inhabitance of unapproachable light who 2000 years ago came in the approachable threshold of the straw filled manger. Yes, though no inn found room for him in Bethlehem, may Jesus find us not only glad to take nativity scenes into our homes, but most importantly welcome under our rooves of our homes and hearts we who are not worthy, this selfsame Word Made Flesh who inspired those crèches and nativities and who longs to dwell forevermore in our hearts. Come Lord Jesus!