The Prophets foretold His coming.
A star announced His presence.
The Magi found Him.
Many were awaiting Him.
But no-one imagined that
He would come in such a way.

The Origins of the Nativity Scene

St. Francis of Assisi, according to the account of his first biographer, Thomas da Celano (c. 1185-1265), wished that the beauty and the grace of Christmas might be contemplated in visible form in a way that would bring everyone to rejoice in the humility of Jesus’ coming, which removed any distance between Him and humanity and invited us to welcome Him with close affection.

Francis was inspired by the wooden boards said to be from the manger of Jesus which he saw in the crypt of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, in Rome, where they are still preserved today.

Greccio 25 December 1223

Since November of that year Francis had being staying at the hermitage of Greccio in what is today the Lazio Region of Central Italy. A cave in the mountains reminded him of one he had seen years before during a visit to Bethlehem. The Saint asked for a manger, an ox and an ass. Above the manger, on a portable altar, the Holy Eucharist was celebrated. No statues were needed, not even the one of the Infant Jesus, since the bread and the wine consecrated on the altar are the Real Presence of Our Lord among us.

A wondrous vision was granted that night at Greccio to one of those present. He saw the Christ Child, lying motionless in the manger, suddenly wake up, as if resurrected by Francis. In fact, love for the Infant Jesus was resurrected by that first nativity scene in the hearts of many who had forgotten Him.

The crib is s the manifestation of the tenderness of God’s love for us.
He, the Creator of the cosmos, now comes to live the life of his creature.
He, infinitely great, is made to look very small.
He, almighty, appears fragile and threatened.
He, in whom is the Life, prepares to suffer death out of love for us.
He, one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, is now also one of us.

On that night of 1223, concludes Thomas da Celano,
"Each and every one returned home full of joy beyond words."
If you know how to look, the same will also happen to you who find yourself here.


The Lights of the Nativity and Christmas

Hippolytus of Rome, in his Commentary on the Prophet Daniel, written around 204 A.D., is the first to remember that Jesus was born on December 25.
The Old Testament recalls that on December 25, 165 B.C., the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple of Jerusalem took place after its re-taking and re-consecration at the hands of Judas Maccabeus, after years of profanation. During this celebration, the flames of the great candelabrum close to the altar remained lit for eight days and nights. On Christmas night, Jesus, who is God, enters His temple and becomes one of us. The many lights of nativity scenes and the Christmas lights present in our towns and cities allude symbolically to this message of salvation.

The Manger

The narrative of the birth of Jesus is found in of St. Luke’s Gospel: “Mary gave birth to her first-born son, she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." The manger, used to contain animal feed, becomes the cradle of Him who said of Himself: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever.”

The Ox and the Ass

The manger mentioned in the Gospel suggests that an animal like an ox might also have been present in the cave-dwelling of Bethlehem, perhaps as a form of heating against the cold. The presence of an ass depends on the fact that it was a form of transport which could plausibly have been used by Mary and Joseph on their journey to Bethlehem in order to comply with requirements of the census ordered by the Emperor Augustus. Both the ox and the ass also appear in certain prophecies. We read in the Prophet Isaiah: “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people does not understand.”
Jesus lying between the ox and the ass signifies that God has indeed come among us, but is not accepted.

The Ruins

In some nativity scenes, as in many pictorial works of art, ruins of ancient buildings appear, often classical representations of temples or palaces.
The Golden Legend of Jacopo da Varazze (c. 1228-1298) refers to the pagan belief that the Temple of Peace in Rome would collapse in the event of a Virgin giving birth. Thus the ruins serve to confirm what is attested by the Gospels.
The ruins of palaces or houses seem to allude to the House of David, in whose lineage Joseph and Jesus descend. The Nativity thus fulfils the Scriptural Prophecy by which God had promised to restore the House of David.

The Infant Jesus Lying on the Ground

Sometimes the Infant Jesus is depicted as lying on the ground. This probably derives from the mystical vision of the Nativity experienced by Saint Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373), Patron Saint of Europe: “The Virgin knelt down with great veneration in an attitude of prayer ... she gave birth to her son from whom radiated such an ineffable light and splendour that the sun was not comparable to it, nor did the candle that St. Joseph had put there give any light at all, the divine light totally annihilating the material light of the candle ... I saw the glorious infant lying on the ground naked and shining ...."
The Infant lying on the ground also corresponds to a practice found in Roman law whereby a new born child was placed on a sheet on the ground before being taken up by his father in the presence of witnesses as an act of paternal acceptance.
Christ will be definitively raised up at Easter in the Resurrection.

Angels, Shepherds, Magi, and the People of Bethlehem

St. Luke’s Gospel recounts that “There were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”
While the people of Bethlehem are often represented in nativity scenes as too busy and distracted to notice what is happening, the shepherds are the first witnesses to this great event of salvation. They watch at night, outside the walls of the small city, near to where Jesus is born. However, theirs is a closeness which is spiritual as well as physical. They are also those who in the dark know how to read the skies. The Magi journey from afar, interpreting the signs of the cosmos and the sacred texts of their peoples, and they reach Christ because God guides those who really seek Him.

The nativity scene is much more than a tradition whose meaning is lost in endless repetition.
It is an exercise in beauty, intelligence, creativity and tradition, all at the same time.
But it is above all the representation of the greatest surprise visited by God on the world and an honest reflection of our humanity, both of yesterday and of today.
There are rich and poor, believers and indifferent.
There is darkness and light. There are human beings and God.
But there is also you.
If you have constructed a nativity scene in your family, when you go home, draw close to it.
That Child has something to say to you.

General Audience - 21 December 2016

In Christian homes, during the Season of Advent, the Nativity scene is arranged, according to the tradition which dates back to Saint Francis of Assisi. In its simple way, the Nativity scene conveys hope; each one of the characters is immersed in this atmosphere of hope.

First of all we note the place in which Jesus was born: Bethlehem. A small village in Judea where, thousands of years earlier, David was born, the shepherd boy chosen by God to be the King of Israel. Bethlehem is not a capital city, and for this reason is preferred by divine Providence, who loves to act through the little ones and the humble. In that birthplace was born the highly anticipated “Son of David”, Jesus, in whom the hope of God and the hope of man meet.

Then we look to Mary, Mother of hope. With her ‘yes’ she opened the door of our world to God: her maiden’s heart was full of hope, wholly enlivened by faith; and thus God chose her and she believed in his word. She, who for nine months was the Ark of the new and eternal Covenant, in the grotto, contemplates the Child and sees in him the love of God, who comes to save his people and the whole of humanity. Next to Mary is Joseph, a descendant of Jesse and of David; he too believed in the words of the angel, and looking at Jesus in the manger, reflects on the fact that that Child has come from the Holy Spirit, and that God himself commanded him to call [the Child] ‘Jesus’. In that name there is hope for every man and woman, because through that son of woman, God will save mankind from death and from sin. This is why it is important to contemplate the Nativity scene!

In the Nativity scene there are also shepherds, who represent the humble and poor who await the Messiah, the “consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25), and the “redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38). In this Child they see the realization of the promises and hope that the salvation of God will finally arrive for each of them. Those who trust in their own certainties, especially material, do not await God’s salvation. Let us keep this in mind: our own assurance will not save us; the only certainty that will save us is that of hope in God. It will save us because it is strong and enables us to journey in life with joy, with the will to do good, with the will to attain eternal happiness. The little ones, the shepherds, instead trust in God, hope in him and rejoice when they recognize in that Child the sign indicated by the angels (cf. Lk 2:12).

The very choir of angels proclaims from on high the great design that the Child fulfills: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased” (2:14). Christian hope is expressed in praise and gratitude to God, who has initiated his Kingdom of love, justice and peace. Dear brothers and sisters, in these days, contemplating the Nativity scene, we prepare ourselves for the Birth of the Lord. It will truly be a celebration if we welcome Jesus, the seed of hope that God sets down in the furrows of our individual and community history. Every ‘yes’ to Jesus who comes, is a bud of hope. Let us trust in this bud of hope, in this ‘yes’: “Yes, Jesus, you can save me, you can save me”. Happy Christmas of hope to all!

Pope Francis

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