For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (II Corinthians 8:9).
Over the remaining days of Advent, spend some time with the manger scene as a focus for personal prayer and family conversation. As you perhaps know, popularizing the custom of the manger scene, or Bethlehem stable, or crèche, as it is variously called, is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.
St. Francis had a special love of poverty, not for its own sake, but because of the example of Jesus, who emptied Himself (Philippians 2:7) of the divine glory that was His by right as the Son of God. He accepted our human weakness in the Incarnation and even more, on the Cross. In the manger scene (at first a live nativity in Greccio, Italy), St. Francis saw this mystery so powerfully revealed, and wanted to communicate this lesson in a visible way. St. Francis is also associated with the Stations of the Cross in parish churches as a way for the faithful to accompany Jesus in prayer during that final surrender of His life on Calvary. These two traditions – the crèche and the Stations – were intimately linked in Francis’ mind and heart. Both reveal the humility and poverty accepted by the Lord for our sake, at the beginning and at the end of His earthly life.
Mary, too, reflects that poverty, offering her womb to the Word made flesh and surrendering her life to the mystery of the Redeemer. Her words in answer to Gabriel – “Let it be done according to your word” – demonstrate her courageous faith in handing over her future to the mission of this Child, leading ultimately to the Cross. “There was no room for them in the place where travelers lodged,” Luke tells us, a foreshadowing of the fact that we are all wayfarers passing through time to the place prepared for us in the Father’s house (see John 14:2).
Also among the figures of poverty in the manger scene are the shepherds. Luke tells us: “In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). The implications and Scriptural connections are rich. The night watch was kept during lambing season; Jesus is born as the Lamb of God. The shepherds were generally considered outcasts in the society of their day, of the poorer class, and little respected; Jesus comes to proclaim the Good News to the lowly.
The shepherds nevertheless linked Israel to its earliest days, a nomadic people who followed their flocks in grazing lands; this made them more easily reliant on God’s providence. Later in their history, they settled in cities and built temples and a kingdom; but this was a risk for them, too readily relying on worldly wealth and power and drifting away from the Covenant, as the prophets often warned (see for example I Samuel 8; II Samuel 24; Judges 9). The announcement of the birth of the Messiah to the shepherds is symbolic of God renewing the Covenant with His people.
Later, Jesus would declare Himself to be the Good Shepherd, a fulfillment of the promise in Ezekiel 34:15:
“’I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,’ declares the Lord GOD.” As the shepherds would protect their flocks from attackers, so Jesus tells us: “I will lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15).
While it is true that tradition, legend, carols, artwork, and so many other sources have informed our understanding of the details of the first Christmas, they too grew out of pondering the spiritual lessons of that moment when the Eternal Word entered time. The great – like the angels and the Magi – share the same joy and awe as the small. In Jesus, we all meet the eternal Word Who empties Himself for us.
Let the manger scene slow you down in the mystery of the humble poverty of that first Christmas, where the infinite riches of God’s love and mercy are poured forth for the world.