We associate the nativity scene, or crèche, with Christmas; many churches and homes display a crèche during the Christmas season, and the traditional Christmas pageant concludes with a tableau of the nativity. The message of the crèche, however, is not only for the holiday season; its message is for the entire year. The crèche speaks of justice, and invites people everywhere to break down the barriers that contribute to injustice.
Today's creche is more elaborate than the original version
Saint Francis of Assisi created the first crèche in 1223 when, in a niche on a rocky hillside, he set up a manger to which he brought an ox and an ass. People flocked to the makeshift stable. That first crèche helped people encounter the tender love of God made manifest in a baby.
From its original simplicity, the crèche evolved to include what is frequently an epic cast of characters more suitable for a Renaissance canvas than for most mantelpieces or church sanctuaries. It is not unusual for a crèche to have figurines of Mary, Joseph and the baby in a manger, shepherds and their sheep, magi and their camels and gifts, an ox, an ass and an imaginative assortment of other animals.
A blend of the Gospel nativity narratives
The more elaborate representations of the crèche blend the two versions of the birth of Jesus that are recounted in the New Testament. In Luke’s Gospel, shepherds hurry from the hills to find the baby in a manger. In Matthew’s Gospel, magi from the East find the child sometime later. Neither Gospel places the shepherds and magi together at the stable, nor mentions any animals, not even the legendary ass that carried the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem.
|Some of the figurines from a ceramic set that my mother made for me;|
this set also includes more shepherds, sheep, and three large camels
A vision of justice
The crèche is a rich source of material for reflection, and my appreciation for it deepens with every passing year. When I was a child, the crèche was a welcome distraction during a long Christmas Mass that, in my childhood estimation, interfered with the festivities under the tree. In the crèche today, I see a theology of justice.
The figures of the crèche –Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the magi – do not have much in common. They are from different cultural, socio-economic and religious backgrounds. While under ordinary circumstances they may have been wary of one another, the baby in the manger unites them. Before the manger, the categories that frequently separate and divide people – race, culture, creed and wealth – dissipate. The crèche directs attention to the dignity of every individual, and presents a vision of human interactions that are devoid of bias, prejudice, greed and hatred.
The crèche holds a message that transcends its usefulness as a seasonal decoration to adorn mantles and church sanctuaries. The message of the crèche can touch our hearts, and inspire us towards more loving and just relationships. The crèche invites everyone to participate in creating a world where the goodwill, peace and joy of Christmas take root and flourish all year long.
Although the crèche artistically portrays a first century story of the birth of a savior, and is specific to a particular set of religious beliefs, the message of the crèche is for everyone, and for all times.