By Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller
The infant Jesus in the manger at St. Emma Monastery Chapel in Greensburg, Pa., has the blond hair and blue eyes of the German culture where it was made, and rests in netting that was richly embroidered by the Zulu people of South Africa.
In the nearby retreat house, the figures in another Nativity wear Eskimo parkas, and the Holy Family is lodged in an igloo. Other Nativities are black or Asian, and in another, the faces have the features of individuals with Down syndrome.
“It says that Jesus Emmanuel, God is with us,” said Benedictine Mother Mary Anne Noll, prioress of the community of 13 Sisters of St. Benedict. “Each culture sees Jesus coming among them, so Jesus is in a canoe, or there are bison and llamas, not camels, or Indian chiefs, not Wise Men. And that is the most wonderful aspect of Christmas — that God is with us, and we are not alone.”
On Dec. 27, the community will welcome visitors to its annual Christmas Open House, where many of the sisters’ nearly 170 Nativity sets will be displayed. The celebration is the focus of the Christmas Octave, which, for the sisters, is their real Christmas season.
“We celebrate Advent, and that’s what it’s all about — the desire for God’s coming,” Mother Mary Anne said. “The Advent season ends with the first Christmas vespers, and we celebrate Christmas until the Epiphany.”
The sisters held the first open house 10 years ago to welcome people who may have never been to a monastery. They welcome many people at year-round retreats and the Benedictine Sisters’ Catholic Gift & Book Shop, but, Mother Mary Anne said, “a lot of people drive by and have no idea what a monastery is about. We pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church, six times a day, plus daily Mass. The monastery is a center of prayer and spirituality where people can come and experience peace, where they can be renewed and refreshed in a special way.”
Sharing their ever-growing collection of Nativities and focusing on Jesus is one of the joys of the holy season. For some, that offers healing that’s elusive in “the glitter season.”
“There are people who come whose hearts are heavy, whose hearts have been torn apart, or that have gone in pieces ahead of them with their loved ones who have gone to God,” Mother Mary Anne said. “For them, the wrappings, the lights and the routine greetings can make their hearts seem more empty, because that’s where they are emotionally. But they can still celebrate in this spiritual way. They can still celebrate the Incarnation.”
Most of the Nativities were donated, and nearly every one has a story. A large all-blue ceramic set was made by a friend of the monastery who downsized her home. Someone else made cross-stitched figures on plastic canvas; stuffed fabric figures came from a discount store; and a recent donation is intricately crocheted. Children are encouraged to play with those unbreakable pieces to learn the Gospel story of Mary, Joseph and the birth of Jesus.
Some Nativities are inexpensive novelties, like the Native American and Eskimo sets, a cookie jar, ornaments that hang on the Christmas tree, and lace scarves woven with Nativity scenes.
Others are more unusual. One clay set from Brazil shows Mary pregnant, and a visitor comes with the gift of a chicken slung over his shoulder. Peruvian figures wear traditional native clothing and hats, and in one set the Holy Family is in a boat. Bamboo figures came from the Philippines, and a set from Haiti is made from coconut shells. Wooden pieces from Poland are simple and stylized.
Three sets were carved by the Wamakonde tribe in Tanzania, and one of the most beautiful sets is from Oberammagau, Germany, a place that is famous for its Passion plays and wood carvings.
“Mary’s hands are so expressive, and the details on the sheep and oxen are so exact,” Mother Mary Anne said.
The fine porcelain figures with Down syndrome came from Spain, and it is said that the artist who designed them thought that his son, who had Down syndrome, “was the most beautiful child in the world.” Other sets were made years ago by members of the community or by Benedictine sisters from other places.
The collection has a number of single figures of Baby Jesus, most of them wax infants from Germany, some just a half-inch in size, and others nearly life-size. Another large plaster infant was at the monastery before Mother Mary Anne arrived in 1962, and she has no idea of its origin.
An infant made in Brazil is sucking his thumb and is displayed in a treasure box painted with lighted candles.
“This shows that Jesus is our treasure and that he is the Light of the World,” Mother Mary Anne said.
One of her favorites is a miniature set from Ecuador.
“The cow is lying with its face on the ground, just looking at the infant,” she said. “And I always pictured that the cow has this look of awe and disbelief, that God ‘would become one of them.’”
And that, she said, is one of the greatest blessings of the Nativities, that they are symbols of the Word Made Flesh.
“Each season, we can say again, 2,000 years later, that he comes again for us, and that he comes into our lives every day,” she added. “Only Jesus can really bring us peace, and if we allow the peace of Christ to come into our hearts, it will change our hearts.”
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