If you want to do some worthwhile December shopping that will lift the darkest of black Fridays with new light, go out and buy a good nativity scene for your home. Consider a well-used one that is available online.
Its presence in your home will make Advent and the yearning for Christmas a true reality. On the first Sunday of Advent, Pope Francis traveled to Greccio in Italy to sign a beautiful apostolic letter entitled “Admirabile signum,” which is translated “enchanting image!”
He traveled to Greccio because it was there in the year 1223 that St. Francis and his companions gathered to establish what history calls the first crèche or nativity scene. When St. Francis arrived, there was a manger filled with hay as well as a donkey and ox. The manger, of course, is a crudely made feeding trough for animals. Pope Francis recalls the sermon from St. Augustine, in which the fourth century preacher poetically says, “Laid in a manger, he became our food.”
How fitting at the first nativity scene that a priest celebrated the holy Eucharist over the manger. Christ, our living bread given for our salvation in his Paschal mystery, is joined
to the great mystery of his birth in which God humbled himself to become one of us for our salvation.
One of my great joys before Christmas Mass at the Cathedral is to observe little children led by their parents to the nativity scene in the back of church. Excitement and wonder fill their eyes, and I think of the great opportunity to pass on the living tradition of our faith. This year parents might consider reading Pope Francis’ apostolic letter, “Admirabile signum,” to their children before visiting the church, or even better, before setting up the nativity scene at home. The letter is brief and easy to follow.
Four lessons worth noting and sharing with children are:
1. Central to the nativity scene is the Christ child as a babe with his mother Mary gazing in adoration and inviting others to come closer. The lesson is that Christ came for each one of us.
2. Gazing on the nativity scene is itself a teaching moment on the beauty of our faith. The simplicity and the humility of God becoming man to save all men and women is so evident and easy to witness. How apt for a parent to describe her first encounter with a nativity scene and share that
with her children.
3. Viewing the nativity scene naturally moves our hearts toward the Holy Eucharist. As St. Augustine stated: “Laid in a manger, he became our food.” At a time when surveys sadly relate the erosion of faith among the faithful in the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, this activity provides a wonderful antidote of an encounter with Christ that the Holy Eucharist brings about.
4. Finally, while my nativity scene at home includes only the shepherds and the magi joining the holy family, larger scenes include laborers and homemakers, the poor and the hungry. The lesson is so clear. Christ came for each of us and bids us to make room for others in our lives. What you do for the least of your brothers and sisters you do for me.
May this Advent and Christmas season draw each of us close to the nativity scene and to our Savior Jesus Christ, warming our hearts, giving us the incentive to pass on the beauty of our faith and allowing us to make room for others in the name of Christ. May the gift of the Holy Eucharist and the real presence of Christ take on new meaning as we contemplate the “admirabile signum,” the enchanting sign. “Laid in a manger, he became our food.”