Setting up the crèche is a beloved tradition in both homes and parishes. I have seen a number of beautiful Nativity sets over the years. Many of them reflect cultural traditions and customs, thus making the little tableau both accessible and universal.
The origin of the crèche is attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi who, in order to both accommodate an overflow crowd in the small town of Greccio, moved the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve outdoors. He set up a manger, filled it with hay and brought two live animals to bring the scene to life. According to Saint Bonaventure he “then … preached to the people about the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter his name for the tenderness of his love, he called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.” (The Life of Saint Francis, X.7.) Saint Bonaventure gives no indication that there were other figures in this early crèche so the appearance of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, along with shepherds and the Magi, gradually took their places as Nativity sets became more widely used.
Most crèches are based on the Infancy Narrative found in Luke’s Gospel. He portrays the Holy Family in humble fashion by describing how, with no room in the inn, they were given shelter where animals were housed. Thus, the infant Jesus is wrapped in “bands of cloth” and laid in a manger, a feeding trough. Biblical scholar and author Stephen Binz notes that the sheltering place was actually one of the many caves that pitted the hills around Bethlehem. It’s far from the cozy depiction in the Nativity sets under our Christmas trees. Binz goes on to note the horrible conditions which were “…more like giving birth in some abandoned hovel of an urban alleyway today.” (Jesus, the Compassionated Savior, Part 1: Luke)
The Flight into Egypt as described in Matthew’s Gospel, places the Holy Family not in a cave with animals and a manger, but fleeing for safety from the terrors of King Herod’s death squads. As such, they share the plight of a huge number of families today. According to the United Nations, there were 16.7 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2013. It’s a staggering number that includes those fleeing from war-ravaged countries as well as the scourge of poverty, hunger, and disease.
Both Scripture accounts offer a way to use our crèches for reflection as well as decoration. Luke’s setting in Bethlehem invites us to consider how Jesus was born not only into humble but also into impoverished circumstances. Matthew’s portrayal of refugees seeking safety in a far-off land reminds us of the plight of so many people who leave all they know behind in order to seek some semblance of security. Like Saint Francis, such meditations might move us to greater love for the “Babe of Bethlehem” and the hope he brings to a world in need of his light and love.
The “O Antiphons” begin today. This beautiful tradition of prayer that marks the Octave of Christmas is a good way to reflect on the coming of Christ during this sacred season. Download reflections to use in your home or parish.