A Nativity Scene Is a Multipurpose Instrument of Faith

COMMENTARY: Pope Francis’ latest apostolic letter treats the crèche as a particularly effective means of making the Gospel come alive, especially for children, but not only for them.

(photo: Shutterstock)

Advent means preparing the Christmas Nativity scene, which the Holy Father encourages every family to include in their homes. And not just that.

Pope Francis, in his recent apostolic letter, Admirabile Signum, on the “meaning and importance of the Nativity scene” also encourages “the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares.”

The apostolic letter treats the Nativity scene, “which encapsulates a wealth of popular piety,” as a particularly effective means of making the Gospel come alive, especially for children, but not only for them.

Admirabile Signum (“Enchanting Sign” in the official Vatican translation), holds up the Nativity scene as an example of effective inculturation, biblical literacy, sacramental piety and liturgical culture.



The recent confusions and controversies at the Pan-Amazon synod might make one think that the Church is a bit lost when it comes to inculturating the Gospel without falling into idolatry or relativism. The contrary is the case.

The Church’s tradition is full of examples of planting the Gospel in various cultures, and the Nativity scene is an example of inculturation par excellence.

“Children — but adults too! — often love to add to the Nativity scene other figures that have no apparent connection with the Gospel accounts,” writes the Holy Father. “Yet, each in its own way, these fanciful additions show that in the new world inaugurated by Jesus there is room for whatever is truly human and for all God’s creatures. From the shepherd to the blacksmith, from the baker to the musicians, from the women carrying jugs of water to the children at play: All this speaks of the everyday holiness, the joy of doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way, born whenever Jesus shares his divine life with us.”

And one might also add: the little drummer boy.

It is not mere folklore tradition that dresses the Holy Family and their visitors in the local costumes of the place, or even goes so far as to make the figures appear ethnically Korean or African or Inuit. It is a theological point, that in becoming incarnate of the Blessed Virgin, God has united himself to every human person, every nation, every culture.

Thus the Catholic imagination has no trouble portraying the Holy Family in the guise of cultures never seen in first-century Bethlehem. It makes a biblical point — after all, were not Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem because a census of the whole world was decreed? The variety of inculturated Nativity scenes show that the whole world was, in fact, present.


Biblical Literacy

Pope Francis went to Greccio, not far from Rome, to sign the apostolic letter Dec. 1. It was in Greccio in 1223 that St. Francis of Assisi, returning home from Rome, found himself for Christmas and invented the Nativity scene as we have known it for just short of 800 years.

“The Franciscan sources describe in detail what then took place in Greccio,” the Pope writes. “Fifteen days before Christmas, 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.’”

It was St. Francis’ love for the Scriptures that made him want to “see” Bethlehem on that holy night.

“The origin of the Christmas crèche is found above all in certain details of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, as related in the Gospels,” writes the Holy Father.

Which Gospel? Is it in Mark or John that we learn about the ox and the ass in the stable where Jesus was born? Trick question — neither Mark’s Gospel nor John’s speak at all about the infancy of Jesus.

So it must be in Matthew and Luke? Tricked again. They do tell us about the infancy, and we read about the manger (Luke 2:7), but there is nothing about the ox and ass.

Why, then, did Francis add the ox and the ass? Where did he get that idea? The ox and ass show Francis’ understanding that the whole of the Scriptures speak of Christ. The animals are present because of the prophetic Book of Isaiah, which we read often in Advent: “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (Isaiah 1:3).

By putting the ox and ass near the manger, Francis was teaching that the Christ Child is the fulfillment of the prophecies, but we often don’t recognize him when he comes. The same truth is taught in the prologue of John’s Gospel, that the Word came to his own, and we did not recognize him.

So Francis put the ox and the ass in the scene, among the first friends of the newborn Lord. They bring to my mind another connection. St. Thomas Aquinas, large and lumbering, was given the nickname the “dumb ox.” St. Francis, legend has it, on his deathbed, thanked his donkey for the services it had given him, and the donkey apparently wept. The ox and the ass perhaps stand in for the saints, the friends of the Lord.


Sacramental Piety

The first Nativity scene at Greccio did not have statues. The people themselves gathered around the manger with the animals. There was no statue of the Christ Child to place in the manger.

“On 25th December, friars came to Greccio from various parts, together with people from the farmsteads in the area, who brought flowers and torches to light up that holy night,” explains the Holy Father. “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. The priest then solemnly celebrated the Eucharist over the manger, showing the bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist.”

At Christmas Mass, which is often preceded or followed by a procession to the Nativity scene, the Christ Child is placed in the manger. But it remains only a statue. At the Holy Mass itself, Jesus becomes real food, his Body placed not in the manger, but in the mouths of the faithful.

That the Word became flesh is taught by St. John’s Gospel (1:14). That the Word became food is indicated by the manger of St. Luke’s Gospel (2:7). The Nativity scene with its feeding box reminds us vividly of this.


Liturgical Culture

And when should the figurine of the Christ Child be placed in the Nativity scene? When it is first set up?

“When, at Christmas, we place the statue of the Infant Jesus in the manger, the Nativity scene suddenly comes alive,” clarifies the Holy Father. The Nativity scene remains without the Baby Jesus until Christmas itself.

Each year at the school Mass just days before Christmas, the Nativity scene is already set up. I invite the children to look at it and figure out what is missing. They all know. Jesus!

They recognize that Christmas without Jesus is somehow lacking, just as a Nativity scene without the Baby Jesus is lacking its focal point. But Jesus does not come when it is convenient for us to arrange our schedules. He does not come on demand.

He comes at a time of his choosing, marked by the Church’s liturgical year. We adjust to him, not fit him in when convenient. We respect that and live its rhythm. It’s a small but important reminder that we need to be formed by a liturgical culture.

The point continues, as the Holy Father notes that the Magi should not be present when the Nativity scene is put up in Advent: “As the feast of Epiphany approaches, we place the statues of the Three Kings in the Christmas crèche.”

Leaving the Magi out until Epiphany is a reminder — much needed — that Christmas begins at Christmas, not ends. That the Nativity scene is not complete until the Epiphany is another reminder about liturgical culture, an invitation to live the entire season. In my parish, the Three Kings are present when the Nativity scene is set up, but not in it. They are kept on the other side of the church, quite a distance away. Throughout the Christmas season, they draw closer. At Epiphany they arrive for the solemn continuation of the joy of Christmas.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

In Advent, we await the coming of Jesus at Christmastime.

What Is Advent Anyway?

EXPLAINER: Advent is a season in the Church’s life intended to renew the experience of waiting and longing for the Messiah.