St Bonaventure in his account of the life of St Francis of Assisi tells us that in the year 1223 Francis, in an effort to convey to the people the scene of Christ’s birth depicted in the Gospel account, erected a live nativity scene in the town of Greccio in central Italy. It captured the imagination not only of the people of the town but quickly spread throughout Christendom. Within a hundred years every church had a nativity scene at Christmas time.
This tradition lives on. Christmas cribs are a feature of the celebration of Christmas not just in churches but in homes and public places.
The crib captures key elements of the story of Christmas. St Luke tells us that the child was placed in a manger, that is, an animal feed trough. This has led to the tradition that the child Jesus was born not in a house but in a stable. St Luke tells us that there was no room in the inn because many had travelled to their ancestral homes to register for the census required by the Roman Emperor. All accommodation was taken when Joseph and his expectant wife, Mary, arrived in Bethlehem. The traditional crib usually has some animals present, particularly cows. The depiction is not so much shabby as simple and rustic.
The couple are depicted looking at this newly born child in an attitude of prayerful contemplation, conscious that this child is the Son of God. There is a serenity on their faces. The scene evokes a sense of peace. They are a young couple with nothing in the world, but their lives that night are rich with joy at the birth of Jesus. They are wrapt in wonder.
The nativity set will usually include some shepherds along with one or more sheep. This is because St Luke tells us that the first people to be told of the birth of the Saviour were shepherds on the nearby hillsides. Why the shepherds? The visit of the angels and their announcement of a child born as Saviour inspired the shepherds to seek out this child who would be recognised as wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
The birth of the Son of God as man was in the humblest of conditions, and it was to the lowliest in society that this message was first announced. God chose not to come among us as a privileged ruler, with a show of might and glory. He came in extreme simplicity and meekness. Here lies one of the most profound revelations of Christmas – God has shown that he wants to be approachable. There will be no palaces or status to separate or segregate the Son of God from humanity. He will be there for the common people and will live among them. The public ministry of Jesus bore this out.
Sometimes the crib will include three well-dressed foreign looking men, accompanied by a camel or two. They will be in adoration and carrying gifts in their hands. These are the wise men from the East. St Matthew recounts their arrival in Jerusalem and asking questions about a child. They had followed a star. The Church has celebrated their arrival on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. Often these days people like to keep the wise men separate from the crib at Christmas as they are still on their journey. They will arrive in two weeks.
Along with the crib we have the custom of singing Christmas carols. Christmas carols can be found in many languages and some popular melodies are known across many countries. Carols are songs of religious joy celebrating the birth of Christ. Carols have their origins in medieval times but most of the carols we sing come from recent centuries. “O Come, all ye Faithful” (Adeste Fideles) is a seventeenth century carol, originally written in Latin. That most popular carol, “Silent Night”, is of Austrian origin and was composed in 1818. While “The Little Drummer Boy” was composed quite recently, in 1957.
Carols are popular songs, not so much theological as expressing religious sentiment. We often find ourselves singing these carols which express childlike sentiments with deep feeling. Mature and worldly wise adults are moved to sing with heartfelt sincerity of the birth of a child. We sing of angels, of a mother’s love, of simple humble settings.
Jesus taught that we must become like little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Christmas is the time above all when we allow a childlike spirit to come to the surface.
Christmas touches something deep in the human spirit. We are all moved by the attraction of the scene at Bethlehem. We know that there are profound truths about the birth of Christ that so readily escape us in the hurly burly of life. We sense that Bethlehem reveals what is most precious in human life. Qualities of humility, vulnerability, of motherly love, of fatherly protection, of tranquillity and peace, of joy, of angels, and honour given to ordinary labourers like the shepherds – all these take us to those places where the deepest truths of human life are revealed.
The crib, the carols, enshrine our celebration of Christmas. And we long for what we celebrate. O that the spirit of Christmas would permeate our life every day.
Pope St John Paul II commented that it is Christ that reveals humanity to itself. Christ shows us what it is to be human. His birth begins that revelation and sets the tone for his life.
We have these few moments to ponder the scene at Bethlehem and to find our hearts stirred by the singing of Christmas carols. These are special moments of blessing and grace. They are moments when we can aspire to embrace life the way Jesus did. These are moments when we identify those things that are most precious in human life.
So today we desire to live in the spirit of Bethlehem, to live humbly, to be willing to accept and embrace simplicity, to desire inner peace and to give expression to genuine joy.
May Jesus live in our hearts. And May the crib and the carols which express our Christmas invite us to live daily the way of Jesus, son of Mary, Son of God.
Archbishop Julian Porteous
Friday, 23 December 2016