Page 3 - Michael Journal March 2020
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The Enchanting Image

                    of the Christmas Crèche

                     Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter

            The  apostolic  letter  “Admirabile  signum”  (The   the Latin word praesepium, meaning “manger”.
        wonderful sign of the crèche) was signed by Pope         Coming into this world, the Son of God was laid
        Francis on Sunday, December 1, 2019 during a vis-    in  the  place  where  animals  feed.  Hay  became  the
        it he made to the Fransiscan sanctuary of Greccio,   first bed of the One who would reveal himself as “the
        north-east of Rome.  (Greccio is where Saint Francis   bread come down from heaven” (Jn 6:41). Saint Au-
        of Assisi fashioned the first manger scene in 1223,   gustine,  with  other  Church  Fathers,  was  impressed
        three years before his death.) The Apostolic Letter   by this symbolism: “Laid in a manger, he became
        addresses “the meaning and importance  of the na-    our food” (Sermon 189, 4). Indeed, the nativity scene
        tivity scene”. The Holy Father encourages families to   evokes a number of the mysteries of Jesus’ life and
        preserve, or rediscover, if necessary, this “beautiful   brings them close to our own daily lives.
        tradition” of preparing the nativity scene a few days
        before Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus, our    But  let  us  go  back  to  the  origins  of  the  Christ-
        Savior. Excerpts from the letter follow:             mas crèche so familiar to us. We need to imagine
                                                             ourselves  in  the  little  Italian  town  of  Greccio,  near
            The enchanting image of the Christmas crèche,    Rieti. Saint Francis stopped there, most likely on his
        so dear to the Christian people, never ceases to     way back from Rome where on 29 November 1223
        arouse  amazement  and  wonder.  The  depiction  of   he had received the confirmation of his Rule from
        Jesus’ birth is itself a simple and joyful proclamation   Pope Honorius III. Francis had earlier visited the Holy
        of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.   Land, and the caves in Greccio reminded him of the
        The nativity scene is like a living Gospel rising up   countryside of Bethlehem. It may also be that the
        from the pages of sacred Scripture. As we contem-    “Poor Man of Assisi” had been struck by the mosaics
        plate the Christmas story, we are invited to set out on   in the Roman Basilica of Saint Mary Major depicting
        a spiritual journey, drawn by the humility of the God   the birth of Jesus, close to the place where, accord-
        who became man in order to encounter every man       ing to an ancient tradition, the wooden panels of the
        and woman. We come to realize that so great is his   manger are preserved.
        love for us that he became one of us, so that we in      The Franciscan Sources describe in detail what
        turn might become one with him.                      then took place in Greccio. Fifteen days before Christ-
            With this Letter, I wish to encourage the beauti-  mas, Francis asked a local man named John to help
        ful family tradition of preparing the nativity scene   him realize his desire “to bring to life the memory of
        in the days before Christmas, but also the custom    that babe born in Bethlehem, to see as much as pos-
        of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hos-  sible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his
        pitals, prisons and town squares. Great imagina-     infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with
        tion and creativity is always shown in employing the   an ox and an ass standing by, he was laid upon a bed
        most diverse materials to create small masterpieces   of hay”.
        of beauty. As children, we learn from our parents and
        grandparents to carry on this joyful tradition, which    At  this,  his  faithful  friend  went  immediately  to
        encapsulates a wealth of popular piety. It is my hope   prepare all that the Saint had asked. On December
        that this custom will never be lost and that, wher-  25, friars came to Greccio from various parts, togeth-
        ever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered   er with people from the farmsteads in the area, who
        and revived.                                         brought  flowers  and  torches  to  light  up  that  holy
                                                             night. When Francis arrived, he found a manger full
            The origin of the Christmas crèche is found above   of hay, an ox and a donkey. All those present experi-
        all in certain details of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, as   enced a new and indescribable joy in the presence of
        related in the Gospels. The evangelist Luke says sim-  the Christmas scene. The priest then solemnly cele-
        ply that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and   brated the Eucharist over the manger, showing the
        wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a   bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and
        manger, because there was no place for them in the   the Eucharist. At Greccio there were no statues; the
        inn” (2:7). Because Jesus was laid in a manger, the   nativity  scene  was  enacted  and  experienced  by  all
        nativity scene is known in Italian as a presepe, from   who were present.                              u
                                             MICHAEL  January/February 2020      5
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