This afternoon I was present in the Illinois capitol building for the annual Capitol City Nativity Blessing, at which I was invited to say a few words, the text of which was as follows:
Capitol City Nativity Blessing
As we gather around the crèche displayed in this Capitol building, it is as if we have heeded the call of those ancient shepherds who said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place” (Luke 2:15). This “thing,” of course, is what the choir of angels announced to them, namely, the Birth of the Son of God and of Mary.
|The reliquary in Santa Maria Maggiore|
Centuries later, though many centuries before us, Saint Jerome – who heeded the cry of the shepherds and moved to Bethlehem to be near the place where the Lord Jesus was born - once cried out in frustration, “Oh, if only I could see that manger in which the Lord was laid!” A very good grumbler, though a holy one, he went on to complain, saying:
As a tribute of honor, we Christians have now removed the mud-baked [reliquary] and replaced it with a silver one; but the one that has been removed is more precious to me! Silver and gold are appropriate for the pagan world: the manger of baked mud is more fitting for the Christian faith.
Pilgrims who visit the relic of the manger now housed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome know something of what Jerome complained as they peer in between the sparkle and shine of the silver and gold to behold the wood of the manger.
|The chapel at Greccio|
Centuries after Saint Jerome, and yet still centuries before us, Saint Francis of Assisi also desired to heed the cry of the shepherds and see the place where the Lord Jesus was born and the manger in which he was laid. Moreover, he wanted to help others do the same. This is why in 1223 he asked Pope Honorious III for permission to fulfill his desire “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.”
Nearly eight centuries later, Catholics are still erecting Nativities in their homes, churches, and in public places so everyone who looks upon them might spiritually go to Bethlehem with the shepherds and see the manger in which the Lord Jesus was laid. Happily, this tradition is now embraced by many of our Protestant brothers and sisters, as well, who join us in using statues both small and large to envision what those shepherds beheld that caused them to return to their fields “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” as a way to enter more fully into the mystery of the Lord’s Birth (Luke 2:20).
It is curious to note that Saint Francis requested two additions to our Nativity displays that neither Saint Matthew nor Saint Mark mention in their Infancy narratives. These, of course, are the ox and the ass. Why, then, did Francis want them included? Many centuries before Saint Francis, Saint Jerome, and well before the Birth of Jesus, the Prophet Isaiah wrote, “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (Isaiah 1:3).
The ox and the ass seem to ask all who pass by, “Do you know your Master? Do you understand and know his love?” They call us to ponder the tremendous love God displays for us in his Incarnation and to recognize that “God is so good that he can give up his divine splendor and come down to a stable, so that we might find him, so that his goodness might touch us, give itself to us, and continue to work through us.”
Let us pray, then, that everyone who looks upon this crèche and manger, ourselves included, might know their Master, allow themselves to be touched by and understand his love, and by imitating this self-less love, allow it to work through them in all they say and do.
On behalf of the Most Reverend Thomas John Paprocki, Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, I thank you for your efforts here today and for the public witness of your faith, and I wish you a blessed Advent and a merry Christmas.
 Saint Jerome, Homily on the Nativity of the Lord, 31. In Advent and Christmas with the Church Fathers. Marco Pappalardo, ed. (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2010), 52.
 In Tomaso de Celano, First Life, XXX.84. In Brother Thomas of Celano: The Life of St. Francis of Assisi and The Treatise of Miracles. Catherine Bolton, trans. (Assisi, Italy: Editrice Minerva), 80-81.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 24 December 2005.