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Nativity:
A Story You Can Get Into

by Michael J. Daley

When I was small, I dreaded going to church during the Advent and Christmas seasons. It wasn't anything the church did, mind you, it was what my mom made my brothers and me do after Mass. Instead of allowing us to hurry home, Mom had other ideas. In front of the main altar, our parish placed a large Nativity scene. You couldn't miss it.

Depending on how close it was to Christmas, various persons began to appear—shepherds, wise men, Mary and Joseph—making their way to Bethlehem.

Desiring that we get more in touch with the season, our mother would tell us to go up to the Nativity scene and say a few prayers. So each Sunday we went. Slowly. Hoping mom would change her mind. Grudgingly. Offering whimpers of resistance along the way. Uncomfortably. With hands in pockets and heads down. Embarrassed. Thinking all the time that everyone was looking at us and mocking our childhood piety. Reaching the Nativity scene, my brothers and I would kneel, say a few quick prayers and hurry out of church.

Now I know better—not only myself, but also the characters of the Nativity story. This Advent and Christmas season, Youth Update invites you to pray with the Nativity story and its characters, to get in touch with its implications in your life.

Ask yourself, "What does this mean to me now?" In this way, you will allow the Nativity story to serve as a bridge enabling you to cross from Advent to the Christmas season.

You'll move from the shepherds and the Magi to Joseph and Mary. You'll even meet one person, Herod, who's not even in the traditional manger scene, yet whose shadow looms large over it.

The idea is to introduce you to the "supporting cast" first—just as I met them in my childhood. The "stars"—Joseph, then Mary and, most important, Jesus—come later.

I have guided a group of young adults through this Nativity reflection. I'll share some of the connections they made between the Nativity story and their own lives.

Protectors of the Innocent

The life of a shepherd in Jesus' time was a tiring and thankless one. Given the land available, shepherds lived a nomadic, or wandering, lifestyle in search of pasture for their flock. It was also a life of watchfulness. The shepherd had to protect his flock, shelter it from any number of threats—weather, bandits, animals of prey.

The unpredictable lifestyle of shepherds made it difficult for them to follow all the precepts of Jewish law, the collection of teachings from the Torah. Shepherds were seen by some as unclean and unlearned.

Yet it is to such a lowly and unfit group of shepherds that an angel appears and says, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord" (Luke 2:10-11). As they shepherded and protected their own flock, this motley group will now journey to Bethlehem to watch over and guard the infant Jesus.

"Like the shepherds," one young adult said, "I have protected the vulnerable and innocent. My little brothers and sisters have always been protected by me and I take great pride in knowing that through my protection they have probably felt at home and very safe among others when I am with them."

Another spoke of his experience with Boy Scouts: "I'm a leader in my troop. At summer camp, parents rely on me to safely supervise their kids and ensure them a fun time. I must do all this responsibly and not put them in any danger, which is often possible with fires, knives, saws and cliffs located near the campsites. I really am like a shepherd to them."

How are you a shepherd? How can you protect the innocent?

Outsiders/Insiders

The word Magi comes from the Greek for "wise person." Guided by a star, these astrologers will soon be caught up in a plot much larger than themselves. Rather than bring Herod's harm, they will bring the Christ child homage (Matthew 2:2). Coming from the East they represent a new chapter in salvation history—the opening up of God's self-revelation to all humanity.

According to their gifts, tradition has numbered them three. The first gives gold, the king of metals, which represents the Christ child's kingship. The second offers frankincense, an incense used in religious ceremonies, which represents his divinity. The third presents myrrh, a fragrance used in burial services, which represents his humanity.

Thinking about the gift he would give the Christ child, one person thought of a watch. He explained that "this would represent a bond of friendship because friends are always willing to give up their time to another friend. This can be done by always being there to listen when a friend is in need and never running away leaving them alone."

Another said she would give a hug. "It's a simple gift, but it says a lot. Hugs are my way of telling people that I appreciate them and that they are my friend. I think that is exactly what Jesus should be for us: a good friend, one that you can trust and love, and one who would forgive you no matter what."

How are you wise? What gifts can you—will you—offer the Christ child?

Herod the Villain

It's only natural, whether reading a book for class or hearing the news on TV, to identify with the good people of a story or an event. I'm sure you've said before, "If I were in that situation I would have done the same thing." The Nativity story, however, calls you to recognize the shady characters, or sides of yourself, as well.

Herod was one such person. He ruled Palestine from 37 to 4 B.C. This leadership was based not upon the will of the people, but upon force. So ruthless was he in defense of the throne, he killed one of his wives and several of his children.

One can only respond with insincerity to the words he speaks to the Magi: "Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage" (Matthew 2:8). Like the pharaoh of Exodus, Herod calls for the death of Bethlehem's young boys under two years of age.

While it was difficult to admit, one young lady said that there had been times in her life when she was like Herod. "Especially when I was younger, I would trick other children into doing things that I didn't want to do—like asking for something from an adult—or at other times I would make them my scapegoat. Also like Herod, I often considered myself the number-one priority and found no remorse in hurting others if it could bring me some personal gain."

Another commented upon how consuming envy, possessiveness and jealousy are. "I think," he remarked, "that self-centeredness is a titanic problem in more than enough lives around the world. Money teaches us to be greedy and possessive. We become jealous of what others have and we don't. I find this in myself and others around me. I have to remind myself that possessions—clothes, cars, homes—aren't the things that make people."

How are you a villain or a bad guy? What negative attitudes or actions sometimes threaten to take over your life?

Joseph the Just

Joseph is definitely an early example of being caught between a rock and a hard place. After finding out that Mary, his betrothed, is pregnant, Joseph is torn between his head and heart. "Could it be anything other than adultery?" he wonders. There appears to be no other possibility. Loving her, though, he wants her to avoid public shame and humiliation.

Finally, after much thought, he "decided to divorce her quietly" (Matthew 1:19). That is, until an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream: "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her" (Matthew 1:20). Thus began Joseph's role as protector of the holy family.

Reflecting upon Joseph, one person described a difficult decision that he had to make. "During the Christmas season a year ago, my grandfather went to the hospital for an operation. He did not react well which forced us to place him on life support. He began to show signs of improvement around Christmas, but then hit a major decline. On December 28 we were called to the hospital and told that he was probably not going to live much longer.

"The whole family crowded around his hospital bed and the doctor asked us whether we would want him to continue as he was with the possibility of life, or to take him off life support and let him die. I immediately wanted to yell out, 'Let him live!,' but I knew that was not a likely outcome and he would suffer longer."

"At the same time, if we pulled the plug, he could finally rest, but I would have to face my first loss of a grandparent. I felt I couldn't win. The family eventually decided that we should remove him from life support, having my grandfather die three days after Christmas."

Another said, "It is easy to see that there are situations in life where the consequences are inescapable. I have often been in this situation," she stressed, "especially within my family. Often I get myself caught in the middle of one family argument after another and am forced to take sides. It appears that I am in a no-win situation. Thankfully, my mom has always been there to help see me through."

How are you like Joseph? How can you turn tough situations into win-win opportunities?

God's Servant

From time to time you've found yourself in difficult situations. You may have faced a divorce or death in your family. School and homework might have appeared never-ending.

Friendships were strained for any number of reasons. Difficult choices, I'm sure, have presented themselves to you when there have been no easy answers.

Picture this: Betrothed in marriage to Joseph, Mary, a young teenager, is visited by the angel Gabriel and asked to do that which at best seems improbable: to bear the Christ child. Naturally, Mary is troubled: "What will Joseph think when he finds me with child?" She knows all too well the penalty for adultery in her culture—death.

Yet, despite the possible misperceptions, she cannot avoid the fact that she has been chosen by God. In an act of great bravery and trust, Mary responds, "May it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).

Connecting with the person of Mary, one young man said, "I can only wish that I would always be so brave when it came to doing God's will. I feel that every morning when I wake up I am a chosen one. I realize that everything I do, all of my actions, should be done for the greater glory of God. I, along with all of the Christians in the world, have been chosen to help usher in God's Kingdom by doing his will in my everyday life."

Mary's yes, though, was not the end of life's struggles. She would be challenged, as are you and I, to live out the invitation to discipleship daily.

Seeing this parallel, another person commented on a retreat experience that he had. "When I was accepted to be a retreat leader I quickly said yes. It wasn't until the date came closer that I began to get worried. I have never liked to talk in front of groups of people and I knew that I would be forced to do this if I went.

"As it was with Mary, my faith was strong. I decided that I would put my fears in the hands of the Lord. Mary took a risk with the child and I took a risk with my classmates. Both of our decisions turned out to be beneficial."

When we were almost finished sharing, one young lady mentioned that she was adopted. "I've always felt a special closeness with Mary," she said. "I often think what would have happened if my birthmother had chosen differently. I can only think that she found herself in similar and trying circumstances. Yet she, like Mary, chose life. I too, in all that I do, try to choose life."

Have you ever recognized that you have been selected or chosen for a special opportunity or given a chance to do something great? How did you answer?

Where Are You?

This season of Advent can be a speed trap. The Nativity story invites you to slow down, to meditate, to think about your relationship with God. To close, I offer you an invitation from someone who has already begun the journey.

"During the Christmas season, we see the many displays of the Nativity scene countless times whether it is in our church or in the yards we drive by. To many, the Nativity scene has become such a recurring theme during Christmas that when they see it, they pay very little attention.

"The scene is always the same: Jesus in his swaddling clothes, Mary and Joseph next to him, the Magi bearing gifts, and the awestruck shepherds. These characters are always present in the scene because of the important message they represent.

"The next time we see the Nativity scene, we should not think it is just some clich—d Christmas practice, but we should ask ourselves, 'What do these characters represent and how am I similar to each of them in my life?'"

Michael J. Daley is a teacher at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also a freelance writer. He holds a B.A. in theology from Xavier University (Ohio) and an M.A. in religious studies from Villanova University (Pennsylvania).

Erin Meegan (16), Katie Pope (17), Joe Sanfolippo (18) and Mary Zdrojewski (18), all members of the Buffalo Diocesan Youth Board, read this issue before it was readied for publication, suggesting changes and posing questions. Andrew Storer, summer intern in the youth department, organized the gathering.

 

St. Francis of Assisi and the
First Nativity Scene 

Though the feast of the Nativity has long been celebrated by the Church, the Nativity scene, or creche, developed only during the Middle Ages. It was begun by St. Francis of Assisi in the little town of Greccio, Italy, in 1223.

One thing that had always attracted Francis to Jesus was his humble and poor birth. One way that Francis saw of further embracing the person of Jesus was to dramatize the first Christmas.

As the story goes, several days before Christmas, Francis sent a friend, John of Bellita, to gather everything necessary for a Nativity scene like that described in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

A feeling of anticipation was in the air very early on December 25. Francis called for his companions in religious life. Together with the people of the town of Greccio, they held candles and torches to light the way to the cave they had prepared.

Hay was in the manger. A live ox and donkey were ready to surround the Christ child with their warmth. Francis delighted in such simple yet literal celebrations. To him, Greccio had become a new Bethlehem.

Italian manger scenes typically include many, many people—representing the workers of the town, its children, its animals. The Italian Francis would want you to be able to picture yourself in Bethlehem's crib scene today, just as he pictured himself there almost 800 years ago.

 

Q.

Do you think it was a mistake for you to be taken to the Nativity scene when you were little?

A.

My mother was trying to raise me up in faith the best she could. I know her intention was good. What I would have liked, though, was to have been shown what to do when I got there! Little kids often have such worries—just as teenagers do. But, today, you and I both understand better what the custom means and how to make the Nativity scene a part of your prayer at Christmas.

Q.

Could you suggest how we might pray before the Nativity scene? Should we be asking, for instance, to be more like the shepherds? To whom are we praying?

A.

First, remember that this is prayer. Through this exercise, you're trying to grow closer to Jesus. Remember that prayers take time, a place and even a certain posture. Don't rush into it. Set aside time when you know you can seriously consider the story. Next, find a place as free from distractions and noise as possible. Finally, make yourself comfortable. Doing these three things will help you imagine and meditate on the characters of Christmas in a prayerful way. If you study this Youth Update with a group, it could help you to share the thoughts and connections you make between yourself and the Christmas story aloud.

Q.

Do you really think considering this story could change me? How?

A.

Yes! Some of the Christian tradition's greatest saints have truly drawn closer to Christ through meditation on the Christmas story. St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius Loyola are two examples. Doing something very similar to what you're doing right now—comparing and contrasting your life with the various characters of Christmas—they were able to grow in their discipleship with Jesus. They took the Nativity scene and made it their own. They involved themselves in the birth of Jesus. That invitation goes out to you now. Accept, please!

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