“Three Lessons to be Learned from Contemplating the Nativity Scene”
Homily to Celebrate 800th Anniversary of St. Francis Establishing the First Nativity Scene
National Shrine of St. Francis
December 25, 2023: Readings for Christmas Mass During the Night
What a joy it is for us to come together to mark this very happy and special occasion of the 800th anniversary of the first Nativity scene set into place by St. Francis, and there could be no more appropriate place for us to do so than here at the National Shrine of St. Francis in this city under his patronage. I am grateful to Fr. Bobby for the invitation to join you for this special day, as well as to all of our Capuchin friars for their invaluable pastoral ministry here; and likewise to the Knights of St. Francis and all of you who support the mission of this beacon of peace, prayer and holiness in the heart of our city.
There are, of course, many fond memories and cherished and time-honored traditions, rituals and symbols that mark this time of the year – the symbol of the Christmas tree and the ritual involved in decorating it, the Christmas wreath, stockings by the fireplace, the wrapping of presents and placing them under the tree, and so forth – all of which makes this a very enchanted time of the year. But most of all for Christians, and especially for us as Catholics, the Christmas crèche remains the most cherished and distinctive symbol of Christmas.
Humanity: Presence in Time
The story, I’m sure, is well known to all of us in this church today: how St. Francis was living in a hermitage outside of the town of Greccio in Umbria, and was inspired – as it is believed, by his pilgrimage to the Holy Land three years before – to depict the scene of Christ’s birth in a literal way. As his first biographer, Brother Thomas of Celano, explains it, St. Francis desired to “represent the birth of that Child in Bethlehem in such a way that with our bodily eyes we may see what he suffered for lack of the necessities of a newborn babe and how he lay in [a] manger between the ox and ass.” And people from all around flocked to contemplate the scene during Christmas Mass.
In other words, Francis wanted to emphasize the real human experience of that first Christmas night, that God truly became a human being, being born as a baby from a Virgin Mother. There was at the time a theological movement that diminished the reality of the humanity of Christ, and looked almost exclusively to his divinity, failing to take full account that the God beyond us and above us is also among us, in the most humble way possible. This is a good lesson for us, too, especially at this time of the year when it is so easy to romanticize that night when Christ was born. It is good that we put much effort, artistry and love into decorating our Nativity scenes, but the beauty of the art should inspire us to contemplate the historical moment in its full reality, and not distract us from it.
Francis wanted to make real to us today what it was actually like then, and it doesn’t take much effort to imagine what it was really like: the cold in the middle of a winter night; the smell of animals and also what animals leave on the ground; shepherds for company having just come from the fields (and so probably not smelling much better than the animals!) – shepherds being those who were regarded as the dregs of society and left figuratively as well as literally out in the cold. But for Francis, this humiliation of the Son of God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity who became a child born in a stable in the midst of squalor and animals and poor peasants, was the model of spiritual perfection. He who is the ruler of all chose to be subject to his creation, to the point of offering his life on the Cross to free us from sin.
Divinity: Enduring Presence
While this reminder of our Lord’s humanity serves us well in our own time, perhaps what we need more now is a reminder of his divinity. It seems to me that our tendency in our own time runs in the other direction: to see the Son of God as no more than a friend, a companion, someone who walks with us – all true – but perhaps seeing him as too much of an equal. After all, as God he has a claim on us, he has dominion over us and we are accountable to him, and that will affect how we live our lives. We do well, though, to acknowledge that this is not an oppressive kind of dominion but a liberating one; however, this is the case only when we order our lives according to his way.
As God, he came to liberate us from sin by his death on the Cross, his Passion, which so deeply moved Francis in contemplating our Lord’s birth. He accomplished this as both God and man united in one Person, and the signs of his Passion are there at his birth: Mary “wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.” These swaddling clothes foretell the burial cloths in which Jesus’ body would be wrapped when placed in the tomb after his crucifixion. And the wood of the manger anticipates the wood of the Cross, the tree on which he would undo the damage done at the tree in the Garden when the serpent deceived our first parents and we lost friendship with God. This is the original religious meaning of the Christmas tree: the tree of the Cross which conquers the tree in the Garden, restoring our friendship with God and giving us the gift of eternal life.
Present at this birth are also the signs of God’s enduring presence with us. What is a manger but a trough, a container from which animals are fed? He came to feed us with his very Body and Blood, being born in Bethlehem, a small insignificant town whose name means “house of bread.” It was not enough for him to humble himself by coming down once to be with us in the form of a human body; he continues to empty himself by coming down from heaven to be present with us sacramentally in the form of bread and wine, the gift of his Body and Blood in the Most Holy Eucharist. He thus continues the mystery of his Incarnation by taking on flesh at each Mass, feeding us with his Body and Blood, which is another mystery that moved St. Francis so deeply in contemplating our Lord’s humility. He was most zealous in safeguarding the due reverence we owe to the Blessed Sacrament, and constantly urged that the Mass be celebrated in a most dignified and sacred way. He is recorded to have said:
… all those who saw the Lord Jesus according to his humanity and did not see and believe according to the Spirit and the Godhead that he is the true Son of God were condemned. And now in the same way, all those who see the sacrament of the body of Christ, which is sanctified by the words of the Lord upon the altar at the hands of the priest in the form of bread and wine and who do not see according to the Spirit and the Godhead that it is truly [the] most holy Body and Blood of Christ are (likewise) condemned.
These are strong words, but they come from his conviction that the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament is just as true as his Real Presence to us in his birth at Bethlehem.
And what about us? The Church in our country is in the midst of a Eucharistic Revival movement, seeking to reclaim this core Catholic belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Could it be that the casual attitude toward the Blessed Sacrament that has become so pervasive in the Church nowadays is a consequence of an attitude that would demote the Son of God from his divinity to being simply a good friend equal to us in our humanity? Failing to recognize his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity under the appearances of bread and wine in the Holy Eucharist in turn leads to failing to recognize his divinity under the appearance of his human body in the Incarnation, and so to order our lives accordingly.
Right Ordering of the Universe
Which brings us to the harsher realities we are facing today. I began by speaking of this season of the year as an enchanted time, filled with fond memories. And yet, we know there is much suffering in our midst and often even in our own families. We are all the more horrified on the global scale as we witness wars and violence and all kinds of atrocities around the globe, most especially in that very land in which our Lord was born. Christmas is very quiet in Bethlehem this year; it is too dangerous to celebrate it in the usual way. We grieve over this; we grieve that the Land which we call “Holy” has been scarred by wars and atrocities for millennia.
Isaiah prophecies an end to this, in words familiar at this Christmastime: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” And he goes on to proclaim these words of comfort: “You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing, …. For the yoke that burdened them, the pole on their shoulder, and the rod of their taskmaster you have smashed, as on the day of Midian. For every boot that tramped in battle, every cloak rolled in blood, will be burned as fuel for flames.” An end to war and bloodshed!
The “yoke,” the “pole,” the “rod of their taskmaster”: these were symbols of Assyrian oppression. God will not allow His people to be oppressed indefinitely. He will come to their rescue and set them free. How will He do this? “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests.” That is, He will send them a king to deliver them from their oppressors. Today we celebrate the fulfillment of that promise: in this child born in Bethlehem are summed up all of the hopes and aspirations of Israel, the culmination of all of its history of conquests and being conquered. But God goes beyond even what they had envisioned, sending His own Son to deliver them, and all who choose to follow him, from the true oppressor: sin and death. This King, the Son of God, is the one named “Prince of Peace.” And yet, war is still with us; brutality abounds. Does the birth of God’s Son, the fulfillment of this promise, really make any difference?
Which brings us to the third lesson to be learned in contemplating the Nativity scene: we learn about the humanity of Christ; we learn about his divinity, and how he would save us from our sins and remain present with us, feeding us with his Body and Blood in the Most Holy Eucharist; and we also learn about a rightly-ordered universe. Let us contemplate that scene: at the center of it all is the baby, the Christ child; immediately surrounding him are his parents; and then the shepherds, who represent the wider community – as the first to believe, they represent the community of believers; overlooking the whole scene are the stars and the angels, the physical and spiritual heavenly realities. A rightly-ordered universe has Christ at the center, with the family unit nurturing that Christ-centered life in the home, supported by the believing community, in union with those who pray for us from heaven.
Christ at the center: this means taking God at His word, trusting that what He teaches is true, and seeking to live our lives after the pattern of the altruistic love which He has modeled for us. God began the work of building a great civilization through His original Chosen People of old, and He fulfills that in the birth, death and Resurrection of His Son, inviting all to be a part of this great story. But it only works when we follow his example of self-emptying love, walking the path of humility, seeking to love one another as he has loved us. The history of God’s people, both Israel of old and the Church of the New Covenant, is filled with examples of infidelity to God’s covenant and all the misery that that brings into the world. But it is also replete with examples of saints who are lights to us, teaching us the way to peace and salvation by their self-identification to Christ.
We can see no greater example of this than your father founder, my dear Capuchin friars, and patron saint of our city and Archdiocese. At that Christmas in Greccio, when St. Francis set up the manger scene in church for the first time and, as a deacon, preached that Christmas Mass, he held the figure of the Christ child in his hands to present to the people for their devotion. After the Mass, the people went into the sanctuary to take pieces of the straw to keep as relics. Reports of miracles then began to circulate: sick animals that ate the straw recovered their health, and women about to give birth touched the straw and had easy deliveries of their babies.
Miracles can happen in our own time, too, if we keep Christ at the center, and fulfill faithfully all of the responsibilities to which he calls us according to our state of life. We do not have to resign ourselves to being conquered by sin; he gives us the power to conquer it and be set free, free to be healed and to live in peace; free to love; free to know, love and serve him in this life, and to live perfectly happy with him forever in heaven. May God grant us this grace. Amen.
 Augustine Thompson, O.P., Francis of Assisi A New Biography (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2012) p. 109.
 Thompson, p. 109.