The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ is an invitation to reflect during Advent and invite Him into our homes and hearts at Christmas.
This year marks the 800th anniversary of the first known reenactment of the Nativity. Inspired by his visit to Bethlehem in the Holy Land, St. Francis of Assisi staged a live Nativity in Greccio, Italy, in 1223.
The Nativity included real people and animals; St. Francis wanted it to be a devotional experience to help people meditate on the mystery of the faith by having a concrete image of it firmly in their minds.
Advent is a time of preparation for the birth of Christ, giving us the time and space to ponder what God did for us as part of His plan for human salvation, said Sister Renita Brummer, a Franciscan Sister of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
The sisters will host a display of hundreds of nativity sets from around the world at their Kirkwood Tau Center in December. The annual event is an opportunity to invite all to open their hearts to the Incarnation of the Word made Flesh, just as St. Francis did 800 years ago, the sisters said.
“Francis was a very incarnational person,” Sister Renita said. “He was taken with the incredible mystery that God would choose to be among us in the form of a helpless infant. It was this humility of God that Francis saw exhibited in the Incarnation. The source and reason for this God Incarnate in the flesh among us was because we were so loved — and humankind had forgotten how loved they were.”
Franciscan spirituality recognizes that it wasn’t just sin that necessitated the mystery of the Christ child’s birth, but also love. “The proof that it was love was that God came in such a humble form: a child, a helpless infant,” Sister Renita said. “That’s what love is — it’s vulnerable, it’s humble.”
St. Francis wanted ordinary people to experience this in their own environment. His idea to reenact the Nativity came just a few years before he died in 1226. The friars had a monastery in Greccio, a small village in central Italy, and the brothers gathered to celebrate Mass in a cave. They brought in animals and invited the townspeople to attend.
Years later, St. Bonaventure wrote that St. Francis chanted the Gospel of Jesus’ birth for the townspeople. As a deacon, he also preached a sermon on the poverty of the newborn King.
According to “The Life of St. Francis,” by Thomas of Celano, whenever St. Francis “would speak the word Bethlehem, his voice was more like the bleating of a sheep. His mouth was filled more with sweet affection than with words. Besides, when he spoke the name child of Bethlehem or Jesus, his tongue licked his lips as it were relishing and savoring with pleased palate the sweetness of the words.”
The Italian Franciscan friar also wrote that a man present at the Nativity reenactment saw a vision of an infant lying in the manger. “He saw the holy man of God, St. Francis, go up to it and rouse the child as from a deep sleep. This vision was not unfitting, for the child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many. But by the working of His grace, He was brought to life again through His servant St. Francis.”
What happened at the first reenactment caught on with others, and the tradition began to spread. St. Francis “took the mystery of the Incarnation and made it experiential for people,” Sister Renita said. “It showed who God is and who we are, and in that humility, God comes to be among us no matter who we are. It’s very relational and it’s why it spread and became part of so many cultures.”
St. Francis’ idea eventually evolved into people bringing the Nativity into their homes. The modern-day Nativity set, which typically includes the infant Jesus, St. Joseph, the Blessed Mother, the Three Wise Men, an angel, shepherds and animals, has become a treasured symbol of God’s incarnational love, Sister Renita said.
Pope Francis has said that the Nativity scene “transmits hope. Each character is immersed in this atmosphere of hope.” Each image found in the Nativity represents an aspect of this hope, he said.
Nativities are found all over the world, using a variety of materials and representing various races, ethnicities and cultures. Each one is a representation that “they enter into people’s ways of life, which is what God does with his presence,” Sister Renita said.
>> “Joy to the World” nativity display
The Franciscan Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help will host their sixth annual “Joy To the World” Nativity display Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 9 and 10. The 2023 event, “Nativities By Candlelight,” will include at least 350 nativities from all over the world. They will be on display from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. in the Assisi Room at Tau Center, 335 S. Kirkwood Road in Kirkwood.
The sisters invite everyone to open their hearts to the Incarnation of the Word made Flesh through the work of artisans and craftspeople from around the world, through antique sets from childhood, collectable groupings and in a hands-on children’s room.
The sisters will have an electronic billboard ad on westbound I-44 between the Big Bend and Lindbergh exits for the month of December, asking passersby to “invite the crib into your home.”
>> Franciscan reflections
The crib: The simple manger in which the infant Jesus was placed shows us the tremendous humility of God. The crib allows us to empty our hearts of all attachments and to open ourselves wide, so that we will be ready to receive Jesus at Christmas.
The cross: The crucifix had a role in St. Francis’ conversion story. While in meditation, the image of the crucifix came alive and said, “Francis, go and rebuild my Church.” The passion and crucifixion of Jesus is a reminder that God suffered for humanity because of love, not despite it.
The Eucharist: Because of God’s humility, He chose to be truly present among us in the simple forms of bread and wine. St. Francis understood the generosity of God, who assumed our human nature out of love for us and all creation.
>> Blessing of a Christmas manger or Nativity scene
The blessing of the Christmas manger or Nativity scene may take place on the vigil of Christmas or at another suitable time. When the manger is set up in the home, it is appropriate that it be blessed by a parent or another family member.
All make the sign of the cross as the leader says:
Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R/. Who made heaven and earth.
One of those present or the leader reads a text of sacred Scripture, for example, Luke 2:1 (lines 1-8) or Isaiah 7:10 (lines 10-15, the birth of Emmanuel).
Reader: The Gospel of the Lord.
R/. Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
The leader prays with hands joined:
God of every nation and people, from the very beginning of creation you have made manifest your love: when our need for a Savior was great you sent your Son to be born of the Virgin Mary. To our lives He brings joy and peace, justice, mercy and love.
Lord, bless all who look upon this manger; may it remind us of the humble birth of Jesus, and raise our thoughts to Him, who is God-with-us and Savior of all, and who lives and reigns forever and ever.
Source: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. For more Advent resources from the USCCB, visit www.usccb.org/prayer-worship/liturgical-year/advent.
Pope: Contemplate greatness of God’s love in simplicity of a crèche
BY CINDY WOODEN | Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY — Whether simple or elaborate, the same every year or constantly changing, a Nativity scene echoes “the beauty of our faith,” Pope Francis wrote.
Marking the 800th anniversary of St. Francis of Assisi putting together the first Christmas crèche in a cave in Greccio, Italy, the Vatican publishing house compiled texts by Pope Francis about Nativity scenes and asked him to write a special introduction.
A key message of the Nativity scene is that the mystery of Christmas “loves to hide within what is infinitely small,” the pope wrote in “Christmas at the Nativity,” which was released in English in the United States by New City Press.
“Awe and wonder are the two feelings that move everyone, young and old, before the Nativity scene, which is like a living Gospel overflowing from the pages of Holy Scripture,” he wrote. The Italian edition of the book went on sale Nov. 21.
“The Incarnation of Jesus Christ remains the heart of God’s revelation, although it is easily forgotten that its unfolding is so unobtrusive, to the point of going unnoticed,” the pope wrote. “Littleness, in fact, is the way to encounter God.”
“Safeguarding the spirit of the Nativity scene becomes a healthy immersion in the presence of God manifested in the small, sometimes trivial and repetitive, everyday things,” he continued.
“The shepherds in the manger are those who welcome God’s surprise and live in wonder at their encounter with Him, adoring Him: in littleness they recognize the face of God,” he said. “Humanly we are all inclined to seek greatness, but it is a gift to know how to really find it: to know how to find greatness in that smallness that God so loves.”
On Christmas night, the angels lead the shepherds to a baby born in a manger — “not a sign of power, self-sufficiency or pride. No. The eternal God is reduced to a helpless, meek, humble human being. God lowered Himself so that we could walk with Him and so that He could stand beside us, not above and far from us.”