As hard as we try, the auditorium sanctuary at Christmas, never measures up to the beauty and the festive nature of the church. So I added some friends to the Holy Family in front of the altar. They may not look like they belong there but who or what does?
About a week ago, I began to hear and read about this year’s nativity scene, as it is presented in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. The news anchor of a popular Catholic television network called it bizarre.
So, I did some investigating and here is what I found out. Outside of the traditional nativity figures of Mary, Joseph, the child Jesus, the Wise Men, shepherds, an angel, and animals, the other figures of the nativity scene are represented in the act of performing the 7 Corporal Works of Mercy. Surrounding the Holy Family, therefore, are the following scenes:
· A man imprisoned in a cell with one bar – depicting not only physical imprisonment but the self-imprisonment of sin
· A woman welcoming a homeless refugee
· An injured man in conversation with another man, depicting the necessary healing of both mind and body
· A man who being given food and drink stands in amazement at the generosity of these gifts
· A wrapped corpse with its arm exposed as it’s taken into a tomb
· A nobleman dressed in fine clothes giving his cloak to a naked man lying in the street.
· In addition, the ornaments on the tree were created by young cancer patients and children in areas effected by earthquakes
The reaction of this national catholic news anchor and some others was that people want to reflect on the Birth of Christ, not these painful scenes. These images, they say, don't evoke a silent night when all was cozy, calm and bright. Still others fear that the Christ child was being eclipsed by these other images; ignoring the savior, while positing that doing good works is the most important means to salvation.
Any critique of art, especially that depicting tenants of faith or theological principals, is fair and appropriate. Art is meant to evoke a reaction. Yet a critique of this nativity scene ought not ignore the origins of the Christmas Crèche or the Gospel proclamation of the mystery it depicts.
Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with popularizing the tradition of the Christmas crèche. The mystery of the incarnation, is an underlying force in the spirituality of Saint Francis. God taking on human flesh, transforms all of creation in the eyes of St. Frances. If Jesus was a baby lying in a crib of straw – then then the stray, the crib, the animals surrounding him and all things of our world are created anew. In the coming of Christ, the world is no longer the place to which humanity was banished, after the fall in the Garden of Eden, but where the living God chooses to dwell.
Saint Francis is more than an ahead of his time, ecologist or animal lover; rather, he understood profoundly what it means to say – in words of the John the Gospel writer, “The word became flesh.” The imagery of the nativity – an artistic expression of the Christmas mystery is incomplete without, the crib, the straw, the animals and the real hardships of humanity.
Perhaps we have become too comfortable with the Gospel just proclaimed. We have lost sight of the wet straw, the odor of the animals and presence of unkempt strangers from the fields. The birth of Christ can only evoke a sense of calm and peace, when we don’t deny the profound depth of the incarnation and a broken world’s encounter with the living God who establishes that peace.
In a homily, during his time as the Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, spoke about what mean when we profess faith in a living incarnate God.
It means that God is not a conclusion we have reached by thinking… if it were just a matter of that, then this God would never be more that a human idea…We cannot define him in whatever way we like. He has defined himself and stands now before us as our Lord, over us and in our midst.
The image of the nativity, and the account proclaimed in the Gospel, is not a story of human creation but divine revelation. It is not for us to say that our image of the new born king must not be muddied by the sorrows of our time. The birth of Jesus Christ, elevates humanity and all of creation from the mud. God chooses the mud. The entering of our God into the human experience, gives meaning and purpose to our lives and unites we who are often lost, together into one flock, with one shepherd.
The other day I met up with an acquaintance someone who lives here in Hicksville and ministers in a Christian church in Bowery section of Manhattan. Marveling somewhat at the number of people who come to our masses on Christmas, he asked, “what do you say to all those people?” “Just Jesus,” I said. In one mindset, it is hard to speak to the experience of every person. The reality is that the mystery we celebrate at Christmas, the incarnation of the divine, speaks to the entirety of humanity on its own.
At the inauguration of this year’s nativity in St. Peter’s square, Pope Francis said:
(The nativity makes) more visible what is perceived in the experience of the birth of the Son of God. (Calling it a) sign of the compassion of the heavenly Father, of his participation and closeness to humanity, which experiences not to be abandoned in the mists of time, but visited and accompanied, in their own difficulties
The new born savior is not eclipsed by the emotionally evoking images in St. Peter’s square or the feeding trough, the straw, the nomad shepherds or the animals we see in our own nativity scenes. We do not lose Christ in the midst of addiction, terror, domestic violence, infidelity, racism and bigotry. It is for these things he came. And it is to this saving mission of feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, burying the dead, and visiting the sick and imprisoned that we are called, not to earn our salvation but reveal the savior.
Gazing on the crèche, the Holy Family and all its creatures and listening to the story of the nativity proclaimed this night is not a unique Christmas experience. It is what we celebrate each and every Sunday. For the human family, (the hungry, thirsty, poor, homeless, sick, imprisoned and the dying) gathers around Jesus Christ not in a manger, but on the altar in the Holy Eucharist. For it is here in this church, on this altar and at “Christ’s Mass,” that those who long for a savior and the communion of others, encounter the living God, who comes first in the humble manger, to die on a cross and abides now and forever, to redeem the world.