Two of my friends are currently visiting the Eternal City and were surprised by the presence of what appears to be the local village drunk passed out among the sheep in the crèche (the Nativity scene) displayed this year in St. Peter's Square:
When asked to explain his presence in the Nativity scene, my first reaction was one of renewed gratitude for being back in the United States of America, even with the bitter temperatures, where such scenes are absent from our Nativity scenes.
As a general rule, Americans tend to prefer their Nativity scenes to be quaint, pleasant, and charming, almost absent of any real discomfort the Holy Family would certainly have experienced. We have sanitized, if you will, our imagining of Christmas morning to fit nicely with the lyrics of "Silent Night" (a song I've never really liked).
When Saint Francis of Assisi first requested permission of Pope Honorius III to re-present the Birth of Jesus, his biographer, Tomaso di Celano, tells us the Poverello wanted "to portray the Child born in Bethlehem and to see somehow with my bodily eyes the hardship he underwent because he lacked all a newborn’s needs, the way he was placed in a manger and how he lay on the hay between the ox and the ass" (First Life, XXX.84). While we have tended to shy away from these hardships, the Italians have taken to displaying the Birth of Jesus in the context of everyday life in all of its normalcy.
Certainly it might be argued the Italians sometimes take this too far (as they do with many things), but nobody likes drama as much as an Italian, and what could be more dramatic than the village drunk in the Nativity?
This dramatization of the early hours of Christmas morning, while distasteful to American sensibilities, may be intended as a stark reminder of the reality of our sin and the very reason the Father sent his Son to be born of the Virgin. As I preached yesterday, "the message of our sinful condition, then, and of our salvation from it in Christ, lies at the heart of the Advent message; to ignore this salvation from sin and death, is to rob Christmas of its beauty, of its wonder, and of its joy."
Perhaps the presence of the village drunk can help us appreciate anew our fallen and sinful condition and our sheer dependence upon the merciful love of God.