One of the most cherished traditions of Christmas is the Nativity Scene. The custom is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, who arranged for a live nativity scene to bring the Gospel story to life and invite the people of his time to understand the reality of this remarkable Gift of God, come in the flesh.
Even more, St. Francis was endlessly inspired by the poverty of Jesus, who made himself small, helpless, weak, coming as a Child born in poor surroundings, and who also died on the Cross, stripped of his garments, abandoned by close friends, emptying himself completely in love. The foundation of Franciscan poverty in their Rule is still today linked to this wonderment at the simple poverty chosen by Jesus.
I still use the figures inherited from my mother, the set she purchased while in nursing school, now almost 80 years ago. We had them under our tree when I was growing up, and I set them up each year in a small stable of popsicles sticks made in grade school.
Whatever form your Nativity Scene takes, spend some time in these later Advent days reflecting on the lessons each of the figures holds for us.
At the center, of course, is Jesus, the Word made flesh. He is laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals, and is born in Bethlehem, Hebrew for “House of Bread.” It is a simple but profound sign of his presence in the Eucharist, becoming the Bread of Life for all who come in faith. Kneeling in adoration is Mary. Her courageous faith and patient waiting brings forth the Redeemer of the World.
She is lending her whole life to this mystery, allowing God to become flesh in her, loving her Child and adoring him as her God. We are called to do the same in our relationship with Jesus: to love, to adore, and to serve his Gospel with our lives. We do this not only in the glorious joy of Christmas, on a Silent Night, but also standing like Mary by the Cross.
Also kneeling before this Child is Joseph. In his own way, he too has opened his entire life to this mystery of God’s presence in the life of Mary’s Child. Without fully understanding, he rises and does as he is told by the Lord’s messenger. He is willing to be the least, the weakest member of this Holy Family but their equal in the depth of his complete love for those entrusted to him. The shepherds are there, as 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 night watch was kept during lambing season; and Jesus is born as the Lamb of God. The shepherds were generally considered outcasts, of the poorer class, and little respected; and Jesus comes to proclaim the Good News to the lowly. The shepherds also link 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. 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. 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).
Angels figure prominently in the Scriptural account of the birth of Jesus, of course, from Gabriel’s visits to Zechariah in the temple (Luke 1:8-20) and to Mary at the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) to “the angel of the Lord” that appeared in a dream to Joseph (Matthew 1:20-24) and the angels that evangelized the shepherds, “praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests’” (Luke 2:8:14). When we feel overwhelmed by the troubles of the world and our sufferings, it is consoling to remember that the very same immortal angels who were there in the skies over Bethlehem are also with us still, and gather with us at every Mass, still proclaiming that Good News of Great Joy: that Jesus has come as our Savior. That first Christmas hymn from the skies, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rest,” remains the inspiration for the Gloria we still use at Mass.
You can add your own reflection on the animals, the Magi, even the wood of the manger. Remember that most of the world, even those in Israel at the time, knew nothing about all this. No social media, no Internet, no phones or email. Word of mouth was all they had; and that very limitation is a lesson from Christmas, the poverty and humility of the way in which God comes personally and humanly into the world.
What will Christmas mean to you? When we place Jesus at its heart, the Lord’s birthday, it becomes a moment of joy, consolation, peace, and hope that does not fade with the passing of the season. That is my prayer for each of us. Emmanuel, God-With-Us, has come, and he prepares for each of us the Way to join him, now and forever.