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The crèche: powerful icon of Christmas

Archbishop Wenski's column for the December edition of the Florida Catholic

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During the Christmas season, our attention is drawn to the crèche. Today the crèche, or nativity scene, has been widely banished from public display –whether in our cities’ parks or even on the private property of our shopping malls. Nevertheless, in thousands of churches, from great basilicas to humble rural chapels, a crèche enhances the usual liturgical décor. Even many of our Protestant brethren, who normally tend to be iconoclastic, proudly have in their places of worship a crèche which originated with a Catholic saint, Francis of Assisi.

In Luke’s Gospel, the angel tells the shepherds: "You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” They say that a picture speaks a thousand words. And in church art, icons are drawn in such a way so as to speak the Word of God through the signs and symbols represented through the artist’s talent. The crèche, no matter how elaborate or simply made, is the foremost “icon” of Christmas that speaks across the ages and across cultures and tells us of “glad tidings.”

We see the animals, the poor shepherds, we see the mother who has just given birth. We see the awestruck yet protective Joseph. And we see the baby, placed in a feed box — a manger. Who could imagine that this little baby is the Son of the Most High? Only she, his mother, does. Looking at her newborn baby with the eyes of faith, Mary knows the truth and guards the Mystery. 

Today, we can also join in her gaze, and look on this child through her eyes — through those eyes of simple and unwavering faith — and so recognize in this child the human face of God. 

In this way, Christmas is a real school of faith and life, a training ground for us, in turn, to learn the truth and become with Mary guardians of the Mystery. She was the first disciple because she first heard the Word and obeyed it. Thus, she is rightly regarded by all generations as blessed amongst women. In this school of faith and life which is Christmas, we too can become like Mary and assume the risks and the joys of discipleship.

Blessed Pope John Paul II recognized the powerful symbolism of the crèche. He initiated the custom of having a rather large one displayed each Christmas season in the middle of St. Peter’s Square. Some years ago at a midnight Mass, as he gazed on the Christ child with his penetrating eyes of faith, those eyes that mirrored so well the eyes of Mary, the eyes of a true disciple, he said:

“The child laid in a lowly manger: this is God's sign. The centuries and the millennia pass, but the sign remains, and it remains valid for us too — the men and women of the third millennium. It is a sign of hope for the whole human family; a sign of peace for those suffering from conflicts of every kind; a sign of freedom for the poor and oppressed; a sign of mercy for those caught up in the vicious circle of sin; a sign of love and consolation for those who feel lonely and abandoned. A small and fragile sign, a humble and quiet sign, but one filled with the power of God who out of love became man.”

Is there any wonder why the crèche is still the foremost “icon” of Christmas? Is there any wonder why the crèche, even though it is sidelined from the secular celebrations of this “holiday season,” still invites our contemplation and leads us, who gaze on it through eyes of faith, to awe-filled prayer?

Comments from readers

Fr. Luis Marrero - 12/26/2013 02:58 PM
Excellency, your article on the Nativity Scene is an invitation to get out and meet the people. We must be real shepherds. It is in line with Pope Francis, the new and radical Francis. He opened a Nativity Scene on the edge of St. Peter Square. Last Friday I was invited to see one of those "Belenes" . A very beautiful one in a friend'a house in Dorado, P.R. You are welcome to see it.
Fr. Luis

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