By: Kathleen M. Carroll
In the Nativity scene at my childhood home, Jesus was a fixture—and not just metaphorically. He was of a piece with the plaster straw-filled crib he rested in, and securely fastened to the middle of the little wooden shack that sheltered him. Setting up the Nativity scene was a three-part process: (1) remove from box; (2) blow off dust; (3) put it somewhere.
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The first time I saw a Fontanini Nativity set, I was dumbfounded. All those beautiful (and expensive) pieces! There were the old standbys I knew well—Mary, Joseph, Jesus, a few shepherds, a handful of farm animals—but also a cast of characters new to me. There were villagers and angels and the three kings, and more and more. I remember scouring my illustrated Bible to find mention of some of these more obscure characters—did the Magi really have servants?—and having little success. I started looking for the crèche at friends’ homes. Each was different. Why were some plain white porcelain and others multicolored plastic? Why were some so sparsely populated while others had a cast of dozens?
I found that my friends’ thoughts on the Nativity scene were as diverse as the items themselves. Some put out the Nativity scene and held off on all other holiday decorations until Christmas Eve. Some set up the crèche but withheld the baby Jesus until Christmas Day. One family even had a tradition of moving the pieces around the house. Jesus would start out on a windowsill and end up in the crib Christmas morning, while the long-traveling wise men would hide out on the back porch until they showed up on Epiphany.
In any Nativity scene there are some non-negiotiable characters. And whether he waits in his crib from the first day of Advent or shows up with the gifts Santa leaves, the star of the show is Jesus.
In the Beginning
This will be a sign for you; you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. —Luke 2:12
Most Americans are more familiar with this passage from repeated viewings of A Charlie Brown Christmas than from having read it for themselves in Scripture.
We take for granted the details of the Christmas story. But it appears in only two of the four Gospels. And those two stories differ quite a bit from one another.
For Matthew, the details explain how this child fulfills the words of the ancient Hebrew prophets. Only Matthew tells us of the mysterious visitors from the East.
For Luke, who emphasizes the way Jesus reached out to the poor and the oppressed, it was important to show that this birth took place in humble and difficult circumstances and that shepherds, ordinarily outside the accepted norms of society, were the first to witness the glorious event.
We happily blend all of these details in our nativity sets, and then add ordinary villagers drawn from the world of Jesus’s parables or the various cultures that have celebrated the birth of Jesus through the centuries.
The Holy Family
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
I can relate to the image of Mary bent over her infant son in the Christmas crèche, marveling at this new life. But unlike that most perfect of mothers, I can well imagine what would fill my thoughts if I knew that my first moments with my eldest would be forever memorialized in the same way. Unmarried and pregnant? What will people think? You put your newborn child in what? With all of those smelly animals around? What kind of mother are you?
Surely, if any mother was “good enough,” Mary must have known herself worthy of that label. But to be the mother of such a Son? And what was good enough for that child? To be born without an earthly father? To spend his first night on a bed of straw? The miracle of birth is too much for any of us to pretend to understand, but the miracle of this birth was on a different scale altogether. Mary did well to ponder these things in her heart.
If Mary had to contend with society’s negative impression, Joseph may have had an even rougher road. Under the law of the time, Joseph had a couple of honorable ways to deal with the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy. He could publicly denounce her and have her stoned, or he could quietly dissolve their betrothal and leave her to whatever consequences might befall her. Marrying her anyway was not one of these honorable options.
Because the Gospels describe Joseph as a “just” man, we know that doing the right thing was important to him. Because he favored the latter of the two honorable options, we might infer that he was also a kind man, or a man very much in love who wanted no harm to come to Mary, no matter what she had done.
The Holy Family reminds us that all families have in common the impossible, and impossibly sweet, burden of shared life.
Angels and Shepherds
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord....” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
And on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Though the Holy Family alone can fill a Nativity set, most crèches feature one
or more angels and shepherds. The way the heavenly messengers delivered their
history-changing news to some of the lowliest people is a perfect metaphor for the Incarnation—the highest heaven mingling with the simplest things of earth.
The angels are there to help us remember that we should never get used to the idea of Christmas. It was a miracle thousands of years ago, but it is no less a miracle today. Each celebration is a chance to welcome a new birth of the savior in our lives, to change our own history with his presence.
The shepherds remind us that our faith is not just for angels or wise men. Even we shabby, run-of-the-mill sinners are invited to new life in Christ.
Follow a Star
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
For those to whom these things are important, pinpointing the date of Jesus’s birth is no easy matter. The local census of governor Quirinius (rather than the emperor Augustus), cited as the reason Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem in the first place, took place around 6 A.D. The reign of Herod ended about ten years earlier. There is no secular record of the Massacre of the Innocents.
The simple answer to all these seeming contradictions is that the ancients didn’t write history the way we understand it today. They were more concerned with the point of the story—an explanation of a tradition, a moral—than in getting the facts right. This is not to say that there are no facts in these stories, just that they must be read with a discerning eye.
Perhaps the last glittering hope of
literalists is the mention of the Star of Bethlehem. If there is one detail the ancients frequently got right, it is often related to astronomical phenomena, though their descriptions would necessarily differ from our own.
The Star of Bethlehem is described as moving. The Magi “follow” it from the East until it stops over the manger. Now camel travel—if indeed the kings had camels, none being mentioned in the Gospel—is quite slow. If the “East” was in fact Persia, the journey to Bethlehem might have taken months. Even this slow pace doesn’t quite jibe with the description of following a star, though. And a star that could appear to “stop” over a precise location is probably no star at all.
So, if the story of the star was not meant to offer us a date for Jesus’s birth, might it have another meaning?
The birth of Christ didn’t just change the course of history; it changed the very nature of the created world. No longer could we imagine an unbridgeable gulf between God and us, by the Incarnation he had become, as Tennyson tells us, closer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet.
Your Own Nativity Scene
Whatever the Star of Bethlehem may have meant to the ancients, the light of Christmas doesn’t come from the stars above, the shopping mall, or our own quite-a-bit-more-tasteful-than-the-neighbors’ decorations. It comes from friends and family gathered, each bringing their own light—a happy memory, a funny story, a bright smile. Whether they’re huddled around a small blaze in the fireplace or the broadcast glow of a college football bowl game, the people we love are the lights in our lives, especially at Christmas.
We’ll still deck the halls, light a few candles, and whisper a few prayers toward the clear night sky, but Christmas reminds us to tend first to the fires of friendship, of family, and of community.
This Christmas, let your own light shine by taking a moment to acknowledge some special quality in those you love.
St. Francis and the First Live Nativity
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John Quigley, OFM
St. Francis of Assisi was profoundly impressed by the simplicity and the poverty of God, who entered our world as a poor person. In his exuberance and passionate love for the incarnation of God that is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, Francis invented a dramatic way to preach about this mystery. In 1223 he created the first Christmas crib so that the people around the Italian village of Greccio could have a practical and personal experience of the incarnation of Jesus and what it meant for ordinary people.
On Christmas Eve, St. Francis invited the people of the region into a cave that he had filled with straw and animals. He wanted them to feel the heat generated by the animals in the stable and to smell the damp hay crammed into the cave’s close quarters. He prepared a crib that was originally intended for the animals’ food as a resting place for the infant Christ. A tradition tells us that during the liturgy, while Francis was preaching with deep feeling about God’s love, the child Jesus appeared and rested in Francis’s arms.
The cave was a small, cramped space—quite unpleasant, certainly not exotic or romantic, particularly for farming people who labored in such conditions on a daily basis. However, it was a dramatic and practical demonstration of how God had entered and continues to enter into their familiar world. God, who is infinite love, shared their lot and lived as one of them.
For St. Francis, Christmas reveals good news about God that we could never come upon by ourselves. Unprompted by us, God chose to become a human person by entering the universe through Mary’s womb. This wonderful good news saves us from inadequate images of God. The message of God choosing to live among us is the reason for such a great celebration by humans.
After the Christmas celebration at Greccio in 1223, the Franciscan friars preached throughout Europe, using the crèche to bring home the Incarnation’s impact.
Their preaching led to customs that remain alive today. At Christmastime, we find Christmas cribs or manger scenes in homes, churches, and even department store windows. We often domesticate and sanitize the impact of these religious scenes, turning them into small Disneylands with miniature buildings and cute animals. St. Francis, on the other hand, was intent on having the people see, smell, and touch the amazing impact of God’s in our lives.
Francis intended to show that God loves seriously and that we are God’s beloved. God stops at nothing to become one with us!
—Excerpted from “St. Francis the Incarnation,” by John Quigley, OFM
St. Anthony Messenger, December 2012
Kathleen M. Carroll is the author of A Mary Christmas, A Catholic Christmas, and A Franciscan Christmas, from which some of these meditations are taken.
NEXT: St. Patrick