Colourful lights, decorations, gifts, parties…. These are all characteristics of Christmas …. the celebration of the birth of the Son of God who became flesh… Have you ever thought about the mystery behind Christmas?… Have you ever thought why there cannot be Christmas without the presence of baby Jesus? If we want Christmas to instil in us a sense of awe before the image of the Son of God made man in Bethlehem… there is no better place than the nativity scene… a true sign of wonder…. A simple and yet profound scene… through which we hear God calling us, through baby Jesus, to enter into a relationship of love with him.
To manifest that he is truly “the bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:41), Jesus was wrapped and placed in a manger, where animals feed, the praesepium.
Greccio… 1223…… Enchanted by the landscape of Bethlehem during a pilgrimage which St Francis made to the Holy Land, he expressed 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”.
A manger full of hay… an ox….. and a donkey… these formed the first simple scene of the nativity in Greccio on Christmas day 1223 … The people who gathered around the nativity scene .. were themselves the ones who enacted the first praesepium…. and through the celebration of the Eucharist everyone experienced the mystery of the Incarnation… Jesus Christ, who assumed human nature in order to redeem it.
It was a powerful experience, so much so that from a simple and humble event …. it turned out as an overwhelming experience enriched by the gift of an amazing vision: one of those present saw Baby Jesus lying in the manger. Indeed….. that day “everyone returned home full of joy.”
But why does the nativity scene resonate so deeply in our hearts?… Why does the praesepium keep showing us the beauty of our faith with such simplicity? The Creator of the universe humbles himself… showing us the divine mercy of God. In Jesus, our brother, the eternal gift of our God the Father to humanity, we find a faithful friend who is always close to us to guide us through our life’s journey.
Let us set up the nativity scene in our homes and meditate on this extraordinary event… Through the praesepium, let us feel and touch the poverty that God’s Son took upon himself in the Incarnation…. Let us through this enchanting image hear the calling of Jesus to walk the path of humility and poverty…. Let us hear his calling to encounter and serve him by showing mercy and kindness to those in need.
The silent and dark night… adorned with the twinkling stars in the sky… reminds us that God is always with us…. he never abandon us … God became man to shed light in the darkest moments of our lives.
The hills and streams… the sheep and their shepherds…. remind us that all creation has a share in the feast of the coming of the Messiah.
The announcing angels…. and the guiding bright star …. remind us that we are called to journey towards the manger and worship our Lord Jesus. “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us” (Lk 2:15). Unlike others, the shepherds become the first witnesses of what is most essential: the greatest gift ever given to us… the salvation of all creation through Jesus. Filled with joy and gratitude… they rise and respond to the invitation to meet baby Jesus in an intimate atmosphere of love. It is precisely this encounter between God and his people that gives life to our faith. In a particular way, this is manifested in the nativity scene… a truly enchanting image!
The inevitable presence of the poor and lowly blend well with the simple manger of the Baby Jesus. They are evidently privileged people… because they managed to acknowledge the presence of God in their midst… they found Jesus, who is “gentle and humble in heart” (Mt 11:29)… The poor reiterate the message that we cannot let the possessions of this world and our ambitions distract us from the wonderful vision of Jesus.
May we not be like Herod… deaf to the message of joy…. blind to the image that portrays hope and dignity to every person…. insensitive to the love and sweetness of the baby of Bethlehem. Let us listen to Jesus proclaiming from the manger the need of creating a more human and fraternal world, where no one feels excluded or marginalized.
The shepherds and the blacksmith… the baker and the musicians… women carrying water jars and children running and playing joyfully… all show that we can find joy and live a holy life in the small things of everyday life. This is made possible by the fact that Jesus wants to sharing his divine life with us.
We cannot fail to notice the figure of Mary… contemplating her child Jesus… and shows him to every visitor. In her, we see the Mother of God who does not keep her Son only to herself but generously offers him to us and encourages us to listen and follow his word.
We turn to St Joseph, with the staff in hand and holding up a lamp… He is the guardian who tirelessly protects his family. Joseph treasured in his heart the great mystery surrounding Jesus and Mary his spouse; as a just man, he entrusted himself always to God’s will, and put it into practice.
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 enchanting image of the birth of Jesus… awakens joy and wonder; it sets before us the great mystery of life. “Life was made manifest” (1 Jn 1:2). In these words, the Apostle John sums up the mystery of the Incarnation. The nativity scene 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.
It’s true that God is unpredictable and always surprises us…. To our astonishment we see him assuming human behaviour and 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.
We see the three Kings approaching from the east… guided by the star. Inspired by their journey, we reflect on the responsibility of every Christian to spread the Gospel. Each of us is called to bear glad tidings to all, testifying by our practical works of mercy to the joy of knowing Jesus and his love.
The nativity scene surely reminds us of the time when we were children, eagerly waiting for the moment to set it up at home. It reminds us of the precious gift of faith which we freely received, and which we are compelled to pass on to the next generations. The nativity scene speaks to us the love of God – He who became a child in order to make us know how close he is to every man, woman and child, regardless of their condition.
The enchanting image of the nativity scene… the praesepium … … teaches us how to contemplate Jesus, how to experience God’s love for us… and reassures us that God is always with us. With his endless love, he brings us together as brothers and sisters.
Like Saint Francis, may we open our hearts to this simple grace, so that from our wonderment a humble prayer may arise: a prayer of thanksgiving to God, who wished to share with us his all, and thus never to leave us alone.