For many Catholics, the arrival of Advent each year represents an invitation to begin assembling in some special corner of a home or church the components of a Nativity scene to serve as the focus of seasonal prayer in the weeks ahead. Unpacked with care after months spent in storage, these delicate “chalkware sacramentals” assume a variety of forms but share the task of rendering the extraordinary mystery of the Incarnation intelligible to the senses.
There can be something vaguely disquieting about our annual rite of crèche-building due to the honesty with which it recalls the lowly circumstance of Jesus’ birth. Amid the rough-hewn timbers of the stable lurk shadows of the cross. The food-trough-of-a-crib they enclose could easily double as a tomb, as it has for centuries in Christian art. Together they embody enough poignancy to preserve the approaching yuletide from decaying into an extended birthday party for Baby Jesus. Lent must inevitably return, after all, and with it the Church’s harrowing ascent alongside Jesus to the brow of Calvary.
There’s nothing new to this sort of thinking, of course. Commentators on Catholic spirituality routinely underscore the important connection between the birth and death of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. There’s much to be gained, they argue, from imagining the passion of our Lord not as beginning in the hours immediately preceding his crucifixion but in the first moment of Christ’s earthly life, when a love uncontainable even by heaven came to rest amid shepherds and angels on a soiled bed of straw.
It’s partly for this reason that the Christmas tableaus we treat as family heirlooms or part of our parish’s patrimony of artworks remain as countercultural in their own way as any other devotional tradition we maintain as a Church. Today, to be sure, they constitute an affront to the darkness emanating from terrorist groups such as ISIS, no less than a challenge to the mid-winter merchandizing blitz that obscures the origins and true meaning of the so-called holiday season.
Though it’s true young children especially can be drawn to the dollhouselike quality of the Christmas stable and its exotic collection of occupants, there’s nothing trivial about our desire to enshrine figurines of the divine babe of Bethlehem in domestic tabernacles of one kind or another.
Since Pope St. John Paul II initiated the practice in the early 1980s, the Vatican itself has erected at the heart of St. Peter’s Square a sprawling replica of Christ’s birthplace attractive to the pious and curious alike. Viewed against the immense facade of St. Peter’s Basilica — a remnant of papal splendor from centuries past, certainly — the Vatican presepe reminds visitors of the absolute poverty into which Christ was born, a station Scripture describes as “a little lower than the angels” (Heb 2:7).
It’s especially fitting, then, that history should credit St. Francis of Assisi — a figure known as Il Poverello (“the poor little one”) by virtue of his own acquaintance with poverty — with fabricating the first Nativity display. So important was Francis’ contribution to the popular conception of Christmas that it figures into the famous cycle of frescoes memorializing the monk on the walls of the Upper Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. There, almost immediately above the building’s entrance doors, visitors can behold “The Crib at Greccio” — its title a reference to the Umbrian village where Francis unveiled his invention and a clue to why, through the marvelous choreography of time and culture, we’ve come to recognize it by its French label, crèche (“crib”).
A strong reminder
In my own household, crèches I’ve built from repurposed materials have been at the center of family-based Advent activities since my now-adult children were barely able to walk. Over the last 30 years or so, they’ve also become important extensions of my classroom instruction as a professor of both fine arts and theology at one of the country’s few Catholic diocesan universities.
Most recently, they’ve evolved into elaborate, bookstore-window-size constructions popular with everyone from the school’s custodial workers and maintenance staff to its senior administrators. No one on campus — most particularly not the student body — is too hip, world-weary or afflicted with the self-absorption of academic life to resist the disarming simplicity of the Nativity’s message.
Even in a Catholic setting, I sense that for increasingly larger numbers of viewers, a facsimile of Christ’s birthplace is less a reminder of childhood lessons drawn from family and church than an almost novel encounter with the real reason behind the monthlong flight from the classroom. This hunch only confirms for me the value of St. Francis’ marvelous teaching tool and the breadth of religious instruction that it facilitates without a chalkboard in sight.
To those hoping to derive the most spiritual benefit from their Nativity scenes throughout Advent and Christmas, I offer the following suggestions:
— Even if your display has never been formally blessed by a priest or received words of blessing during a ceremony in your own household, treat it from setup to re-storage with the reverence befitting any sacred object — indeed, as a three-dimensional prayer bearing the transformative power of any rosary, crucifix or scapular in your possession.
— Allow yourself to be amazed by all that is both familiar and unfamiliar about the scene, its reliance on actors — including the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph and the Christ Child himself — whose human condition was identical to your own. Recognize in the stable the scandal inherent in all Christian art, which is the Gospel itself: In the appalling ordinariness of Jesus’ birth, the extraordinary came to dwell with humankind. Heaven and earth were reconciled for good, and the Holy Family was made an extension of our own families.
— Don’t fear embracing the manger’s gift of Christ-as-Divine Infant. There is a reason why in Italy for example, such affection is heaped upon Il Bambino Jesù (“The Baby Jesus”). We all know how easy it is to fall in love with a newborn infant and how resilient and forgiving young children are said to be. In coming to us as a child who gazes at us as adoringly as we at him, the second person of the Trinity pledges infinite forgiveness to us. Imitate his forgiveness.
— Never underestimate the catechetical value of your family or parish’s Nativity scene, that is, its ability to convey in the least threatening way to viewers at all places in the spiritual journey the central mystery of our faith. “Christ,” we declare in our public proclamation of the Nicene Creed, “became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” Likewise, in our humble Nativity scenes, the story of Christ’s vesting in humanity becomes embodied in clay or plaster or wood in a way that is incarnational.
As we reflect on the recently ended Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, it’s especially important for us not to hold God at arm’s length but to welcome him by means of our Advent traditions into the very midst of our homes and places of worship.
None, perhaps, is better at conveying the very gift of Mercy Incarnate than the open-armed figurine of the Christ Child ensconced in our artful configurations of straw and stable. Emmanuel himself, it reminds us, still dares to trade power for vulnerability and take up residence in the most unwelcoming corners of our own hearts.
Michael E. DeSanctis is a professor of fine arts at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania.