The Nativity

On this day before Christmas, I quote at length from Pope Francis’ apostolic letter focusing on the importance of the nativity scene. In the letter he signed during his recent visit to the Italian town of Greccio., the Holy Father says: “The Nativity scene is like a living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture”. 

Contemplating the Christmas story is like setting out on a spiritual journey, “drawn by the humility of the God who became man in order to encounter every man and woman.” , says Francis. So great is His love for us, writes the Pope, “that He became one of us, so that we in turn might become one with Him.”

Pope Francis explains that the Christmas crèche moves us so deeply because it shows God’s tender love. From the time of its Franciscan origins, “the nativity scene has invited us to ‘feel’ and ‘touch’ the poverty that God’s Son took upon Himself in the Incarnation”, writes the Pope. “It asks us to meet Him and serve Him by showing mercy to those of our brothers and sisters in greatest need.”

The Holy Father recalls the origin of the Christmas crèche as related in the Gospels. “Coming into this world, the Son of God was laid in the place where animals feed. Hay became the first bed of the One who would reveal Himself as ‘the bread come down from heaven’.” The nativity scene “evokes a number of the mysteries of Jesus’ life and brings them close to our own daily lives”, the Pope said.

The Christmas crèche is part of the precious yet demanding process of passing on the faith, concludes Pope Francis. “Beginning in childhood, and at every stage of our lives, it teaches us to contemplate Jesus, to experience God’s love for us, to feel and believe that God is with us and that we are with Him.”

Pope Francis then gives the meaning behind the elements of the Nativity crèche. According to him, the landscapes are “the visible sign of fallen humanity, of everything that inevitably falls into ruin, decays and disappoints.” This scenic setting tells us that Jesus has come “to heal and rebuild, to restore the world and our lives to their original splendour.”  The shepherds respond to God “who comes to meet us in the Infant Jesus by setting out to meet Him with love, gratitude and awe”, he adds.  Mary is a mother who contemplates her child and shows Him to every visitor”, the Pope writes. 

“In her, we see the Mother of God who does not keep her Son only to herself, but invites everyone to obey His word and to put it into practice. Saint Joseph stands by her side, “protecting the Child and His Mother.” Joseph is the guardian, the just man, who “entrusted himself always to God’s will.” On the infant Jesus, the Holy Father writes: It seems impossible, yet it is true: in Jesus, God was a child, and in this way He wished to reveal the greatness of His love: by smiling and opening His arms to all.” The crèche allows us to see and touch this unique and unparalleled event that changed the course of history, “but it also makes us reflect on how our life is part of God’s own life.” And the three Kings reminds us of every Christian’s responsibility to spread the Gospel, writes Pope Francis.

In another Apostolic Letter entitled Admirabile signum, the Holy Father traces the origins of the traditional nativity scene, which in his words, is meant “to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the Nativity scene in the days before Christmas, but also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares.” In this letter, Pope Francis spends a little time rehearsing the origins of the Nativity scene tradition, noting that it was very much a public affair, and involved the highest form of the Church’s official public worship of the Triune God, who took on human flesh for our salvation.

“On 25 December [in 1223], friars came to Greccio from various parts, together with people from the farmsteads in the area, who brought flowers and torches to light up that holy night. When [St] Francis arrived, he found a manger full of hay, an ox and a donkey. All those present experienced a new and indescribable joy in the presence of the Christmas scene. The priest then solemnly celebrated the Eucharist over the manger, showing the bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist. At Greccio there were no statues; the Nativity scene was enacted and experienced by all who were present.”

These days, “living” Nativities are making something of a comeback. Even when they are still and statuary, however, crib scenes are a chance to exercise powers of fancy and invention. “Great imagination and creativity is always shown in employing the most diverse materials to create small masterpieces of beauty,” Francis says. “As children, we learn from our parents and grandparents to carry on this joyful tradition, which encapsulates a wealth of popular piety.

“It is my hope,” Pope Francis  concludes, “that this custom will never be lost and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived.”

A blessed Christmas to all my readers!


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