14 December 2019

Homily - On the importance of the Nativity Scene

The Third Sunday of Advent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

His Holiness Pope Francis recently published the Apostolic Letter Admirabile Signum in which he reflected on the admirable sign of the depiction of the Birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. It used to be commonly seen in both public and private places at this time of year, though now it has all but fallen into disuse - even within Christian homes - as we shape Christmas more and more into a celebration of winter.

The Holy Father wrote his letter both “to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the nativity scene in the days before Christmas” and to express his “hope that this custom will never be lost and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived.”[1] His desires in this letter are also mine.

It was, of course, Saint Francis of Assisi who first gave us the crèche on Christmas Eve in 1223 in the Italian village of Greccio. He was so moved by the humanity of Jesus that he said to a man named John who, we are told, “had a good reputation and even better life”:

If you would like us to celebrate this feast day of the Lord in Greccio, then go there ahead of me and prepare what I tell you. I would like 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.[2]

Everything, of course, was prepared as the Poverello requested and he celebrated Christmas that year at Greccio, some sixty miles north of Rome.

When Saint Francis arrived that Christmas Eve night, everyone present was

gladdened with new joy over the renewed mystery…  The brothers sang the Lord’s praise and the entire night was spent in celebration. Sighing, the Saint of God stood before the crèche, filled with sighs, contrite in piety and overcome with ineffable joy.[3]

Francis stood before the crèche, before the manger filled only with hay, flanked by the animals, and was filled with sorrow for his sins and with joy at the humility and love of the Child of Bethlehem. Does the same happen to you when you gaze upon a Nativity set? Perhaps as children we once were filled with the humility and love of the Son of God when looking at – or playing with – a Nativity set. It can still be so today; in these remaining days before Christmas, let us beg the Lord for this beautiful grace.

Some might now be asking why a Nativity set should move us so deeply and inspire both sorrow for sins and with great joy. Isn’t it just a collection of figurines? No, it is more than a simple set of statues because a depiction of the Lord’s Birth “shows God’s tender love: the Creator of the universe lowered himself to take up our littleness. The gift of life, in all its mystery, becomes all the more wondrous as we realize that the Son of Mary is the source and sustenance of all life.”[4] This is, in part, why, today, after receiving the very Body and Blood of the Son of God, we will bless the images of the Christ Child that we will place in our nativity sets at Christmas. Such displays remind us that Christ Jesus – the Bread of Life – was born in Bethlehem – the House of Bread – and placed within a manger, a feeding trough (cf. John 6:35).

The Nativity is set such a cherished custom for many of the faithful because it is a way for us “to ‘feel’ and ‘touch’ the poverty that God’s Son took upon himself in the Incarnation. Implicitly, it summons us to follow him along the path of humility, poverty and self-denial that leads from the manger of Bethlehem to the cross.”[5] At the same time, it reminds us that “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.”[6] For this reason, “the nativity scene shows God as he came into our world, but it also makes us reflect on how our life is part of God’s own life. It invites us to become his disciples if we want to attain ultimate meaning in life.”[7] Perhaps this is why, in an age in which so many people – Christians included – live as though God did not exist, that the Nativity display is quickly vanishing from both public and private life. Indeed, as Pope Francis as said,

It does not matter how the nativity scene is arranged: it can always be the same or it can change from year to year. What matters is that it speaks to our lives. Wherever it is, and whatever form it takes, the Christmas crèche speaks to us of the love of God, the God who became a child in order to make us know how close he is to every man, woman and child, regardless of their condition.[8]

As we prepare, then, to celebrate the coming feasts, set up your Nativity sets with joy in a prominent place of the home. Gather together around them frequently and learn

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, his children, brothers and sisters all, thanks to the Child who is the Son of God and the Son of the Virgin Mary. And to realize that in that knowledge we find true happiness.[9]

If we allow our Nativity sets to teach us to imitate the love God, then, we, too will be of good reputation, and of even better lives. Amen.

[1] Pope Francis, Admirabile signum, 1.
[2] Tomaso de Celano, First Life, XXX.84 in Brother Thomas of Celano: The Life of St. Francis of Assisi and The Treatise of Miracles, trans. Catherine Bolton (Assisi, Italy: Editrice Minerva, 2001), 80-81.
[3] Ibid., XXX.85.
[4] Pope Francis, Admirabile signum, 3.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 8.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 10.
[9] Ibid.

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