This year a well-known chain of bakers produced one of the most talked-about Nativity scenes. The substitution of a sausage roll for the Child Jesus horrified some, but, odd as it seems, it made sense theologically. At Christmas the Word becomes flesh and nourishes us with his very self in the Scriptures and sacraments, above all the Eucharist.
When St Francis of Assisi created the first live Nativity scene at Greccio in the 13th century, he little realised how popular it would be, or what a useful tool it would prove for teaching the meaning of Christmas. That first crib had no figures of Mary or Joseph, no shepherds or kings, just a Christ figure, an ox and a donkey, and those who came to worship.
In time the Nativity scene became subject to much elaboration. Statues or puppets began to take the place of living participants and the number of figures increased. Interestingly, the ox and the donkey (which come from Pseudo-Matthew and are not mentioned in the canonical Gospels) have tended to be constants and have often been taken to symbolise the Son of God’s humility and patience.
Angels, shepherds and Magi make their appearance at various times during the Christmas season, but so, too, in some places somewhat surprising additions. Camels and elephants one might expect, but the appearance of Adam and Eve and the serpent, or Noah and his animals, or the Twelve Tribes of Israel, or a Dove, symbolising the Holy Spirit, perhaps not. Charles III, King of the Two Sicilies, was probably the first to introduce a bevy of richly decked characters into the Nativity scene and from his time date some of the cribs which tell us more about life in contemporary Naples or Poland than 1st-century Palestine. Regional variations became more pronounced so that today it is possible to tell immediately where a crib was made.
Whatever kind of crib we have, it reminds us that Christmas is about something both very human and utterly transcendent. Here at the monastery (which was once a barn) we place our crib near the entrance, against the wall where animals were tethered. It is austerely beautiful, being made of white figurines from the south of France. For me, its sweeping lines and flowing curves recall Hopkins’s line “… the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
But alongside all that theology of the Incarnation and the wonder and awe it evokes is a grounding in the stuff of the stable. We are not far from the blood, sweat and sheer messiness of suffering and birth. No amount of artistry can, or should, distance us from that.
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