Getting ready for Christmas was my favorite time of year as a little boy. I was blessed to grow up in a very Catholic family, and I was always fascinated by nativity scenes and their symbolism. There is something about baby Jesus that really spoke to me as a kid.
My biggest issue was that He seemed to be missing from the nativity scene for what felt like forever. Keeping with a popular Catholic tradition, we kept Baby Jesus away from His own gathering until Christmas actually came, and it drove me crazy with anticipation.
When I spent several months in Rome, I would often go to Sunday Mass at the Basilica of St. Mary Major, and there is a unique relic that is kept beneath the main altar of this gorgeous church – fragments from the manger in which the infant Christ lay. Tradition has it that the fragments stored here are the some that belong to the original manger featured in so many Christmas carols today. With all the visitors that we believe visited the King at His birth, it’s no wonder that one of them would have made off with His bed to keep and cherish and remember.
When I first saw the golden covered reliquary, I was instantly reminded of my memories of the empty managers I had seen during Advent throughout my life. Even to this day, it speaks to my heart and vividly reminds me that we are awaiting the coming of the King. Now that He has already laid His head upon the hay of the manger, we await in confident hope for His glorious return.
St. Francis of Assisi is attributed with beginning the tradition of the Christmas Creche, but the first one was a living nativity scene. Now it has grown to be popular across the world, even to the point where Protestant Christians that accuse us of idolatry, put down the arguments against images and bring out their own nativity scenes. There’s just something that is undeniably moving about the image for all people.
St. Bonaventure has a detailed account of the first nativity scene as told in his Life of St. Francis:
It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem. A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep. This vision of the devout soldier is credible, not only by reason of the sanctity of him that saw it, but by reason of the miracles which afterwards confirmed its truth. For example of Francis, if it be considered by the world, is doubtless sufficient to excite all hearts which are negligent in the faith of Christ; and the hay of that manger, being preserved by the people, miraculously cured all diseases of cattle, and many other pestilences; God thus in all things glorifying his servant, and witnessing to the great efficacy of his holy prayers by manifest prodigies and miracles.
Advent Challenge: Take time to reflect upon the image of the nativity scene this Advent and Christmas. It’s easy to look and think, “how cute,” but it’s purpose is to move our hearts towards reflection of this glorious and miraculous gift of salvation. Look upon the images of Christmas until you hear it proclaim the Gospel.
During this last part of Advent, let the empty manager remind you of the empty tomb and the power of the love of God. Christ has come, Christ is died, Christ has rise, Jesus will come again.
O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!
–O Antiphon of Advent Dec 17