In the front room of my sister’s house these days a nativity scene takes pride of place. With figurines visible from the door – the magi mounted on horse, camel and elephant stand at least two feet high – the crèche is a compelling image that invites closer inspection. Once past the imposing images of the Three Kings, the gaze moves to a servant boy holding the reins of the elephant, a shepherd grasping a staff, a merchant woman with flasks in hand and a basket of apples at her feet. In the center but dwarfed by the rest lies the swaddled babe in the manger, his earthly parents bent protectively over his defenseless form.
Tucked into the corner of another room of my sister’s house is a much smaller nativity scene, this one more playful. The Boyds Bears characters, cast in cold case resin and standing at most a few inches tall, portray the Holy Family, a shepherd, a donkey with one floppy ear, a camel with a fringed saddle pad.
The first nativity scene brought to mind the drama of the Christmas season, the second made me smile. Both reactions, I think, are appropriate, for there is both grandeur and joy in the Incarnation of the Son of God. It is a scene that lends itself to adaptation by every culture that has heard of the birth of the god made flesh, who came to earth as a babe born in a manger because his parents could find no room at the inn. I have seen life-sized nativities, and others that fit into a matchbox. Three years ago I went to an exhibit in which nativity scenes from around the world were displayed at Midway’s Historic Town Hall. One crèche, by the famous Fontanini firm, filled an entire room as it depicted what seemed to be the entire village of Bethlehem, complete with a bazaar, palm trees and merchants such as a baker and a potter. By contrast were scenes comprised only of the three members of the Holy Family in the traditional dress of various countries. They were carved of wood, of gourds, created from materials I couldn’t even guess at, but each reflecting the reverence of the artist for the subject.
Pope Francis captures the worldwide desire to depict the birth of the Christ Child in his most recent apostolic letter, “Admirabile Signum” (“Admirable Image”), which has the subtitle “On the Meaning and Importance of the Nativity Scene.”
“The enchanting image of the Christmas crèche, so dear to the Christian people, never ceases to arouse amazement and wonder,” the Holy Father writes. “The depiction of Jesus’ birth is itself a simple and joyful proclamation of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. The nativity scene is like a living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture.”
Like me, Pope Francis marvels at the inventiveness of the artists, noting that “Great imagination and creativity is always shown in employing the most diverse materials to create small masterpieces of beauty.”
In the letter, the Holy Father reflects “on the various elements of the nativity scene in order to appreciate their deeper meaning.” These elements include the starry sky and the landscapes as well as animals and people.
While most nativity scenes depict symbolic figures such as angels and shepherds, beggars and the magi, “Children – but adults, too! – often love to add to the nativity scene other figures that have no apparent connection with the Gospel accounts,” Pope Francis writes. “Yet, each in its own way, these fanciful additions show that in the new world inaugurated by Jesus there is room for whatever is truly human and for all God’s creatures. From the shepherd to the blacksmith, from the baker to the musicians, from the women carrying jugs of water to the children at play: all this speaks of the everyday holiness, the joy of doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way, born whenever Jesus shares his divine life with us.”
The letter, which at 3,000 words is about the length of the average magazine feature story – is a plea for Christians to continue the tradition of setting up nativity scenes because of the message they contain.
“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,” the pope writes. “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.”
I enjoyed seeing the nativity scenes in my sister’s house. Now, having read the apostolic letter, I will appreciate even more my own set as I take the figures from the box. I also will, as Pope Francis suggests, offer “a prayer of thanksgiving to God, who wished to share with us his all, and thus never to leave us alone.”
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.