With Advent now upon us, most likely we’ve all done our annual task of digging through attics, basements or garages in order to find the box containing the family Nativity scene. Whether it was recently bought, has been passed down from generation to generation, or is so beloved that it is well-worn with pieces missing, the Nativity scene plays an important role in the life of the Church during this season of preparation for the coming of the Lord.
In a new apostolic letter, Admirabile Signum, released Dec. 1, Pope Francis writes about the meaning and importance of Nativity scenes, encouraging us to look at them with fresh eyes. The following are five recommendations from that document on how the Christmas crèche can help us to better appreciate the gift of the Incarnation this Advent.
1. Make setting up the Nativity scene a family or community event
“I wish to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the Nativity scene in the days before Christmas, but also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares. Great imagination and creativity is always shown in employing the most diverse materials to create small masterpieces of beauty. As children, we learn from our parents and grandparents to carry on this joyful tradition, which encapsulates a wealth of popular piety. It is my hope that this custom will never be lost and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived” (No. 1).
2. Appreciate its origins
“Fifteen days before Christmas [in 1223], St. Francis asked a local man named John to help him realize his desire ‘to bring to life the memory of that babe born in Bethlehem, to see as much as possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he was laid upon a bed of hay.’ … When Francis arrived, he found a manger full of hay, an ox and a donkey. All those present experienced a new and indescribable joy in the presence of the Christmas scene. … This is how our tradition began: with everyone gathered in joy around the cave, with no distance between the original event and those sharing in its mystery” (No. 2).
3. Contemplate the scene on that first Christmas
“Why does the Christmas crèche arouse such wonder and move us so deeply? First, because it shows God’s tender love: the Creator of the universe lowered himself to take up our littleness. The gift of life, in all its mystery, becomes all the more wondrous as we realize that the Son of Mary is the source and sustenance of all life. In Jesus, the Father has given us a brother who comes to seek us out whenever we are confused or lost, a loyal friend ever at our side. He gave us his Son who forgives us and frees us from our sins. … Setting up the Christmas crèche in our homes helps us to relive the history of what took place in Bethlehem. Naturally, the Gospels remain our source for understanding and reflecting on that event. At the same time, its portrayal in the crèche helps us to imagine the scene. It touches our hearts and makes us enter into salvation history as contemporaries of an event that is living and real in a broad gamut of historical and cultural contexts” (No. 3).
4. Do not overlook the night sky of the Nativity set
“There is the background of a starry sky wrapped in the darkness and silence of night. We represent this not only out of fidelity to the Gospel accounts, but also for its symbolic value. We can think of all those times in our lives when we have experienced the darkness of night. Yet even then, God does not abandon us, but is there to answer our crucial questions about the meaning of life. Who am I? Where do I come from? Why was I born at this time in history? Why do I love? Why do I suffer? Why will I die? It was to answer these questions that God became man. His closeness brings light where there is darkness and shows the way to those dwelling in the shadow of suffering (cf. Lk 1:79)” (No. 4).
5. Wait to place Baby Jesus in the manger, and be in awe of his miraculous gift
“When, at Christmas, we place the statue of the Infant Jesus in the manger, the Nativity scene suddenly comes alive. God appears as a child, for us to take into our arms. Beneath weakness and frailty, he conceals his power that creates and transforms all things. It seems impossible, yet it is true: in Jesus, God was a child, and in this way he wished to reveal the greatness of his love: by smiling and opening his arms to all. … The crèche allows us to see and touch this unique and unparalleled event that changed the course of history, so that time would thereafter be reckoned either before or after the birth of Christ. … The Nativity scene shows God as he came into our world, but it also makes us reflect on how our life is part of God’s own life. It invites us to become his disciples if we want to attain ultimate meaning in life” (No. 8).