Whilst some people are criticising the modern art of this year’s Nativity Scene in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican, we wonder what they would have said about a very different kind of creative expression of the Nativity! Read on!
As a child, I was often making things from odds and ends, old boxes and bits of discarded fabric and other things meant for the bin. I didn’t create anything particularly outstanding, limited as I was in my art and craft skills but one Christmas, I created my masterpiece! A Nativity Scene, the characters of which I craftily made from toilet rolls and ends of fabric collected over many months.
I don’t know how I managed to collect so many toilet rolls (although we were a family of five!) but the characters soon outnumbered the traditional set up. There were flocks of shepherds, a few extra kings, and many other passers-by who peered into the cardboard stable.
In Rome, there is the beautiful Nativity Scene (with features of Rome rather than Bethlehem) constantly on display in the Church of Ss Cosmos and Damian. It’s an impressive site, protected behind large panes of glass, the scene filled with miniature houses, shops, woods, and an array of people about their work. It’s a tradition particularly loved in Naples, the Presepe, where Nativity scenes consist of hundreds of figures, including those of contemporary people.
It’s perhaps fitting that the church of Cosmos and Damian is run by Franciscan Friars, since it was St Francis who first brought us the idea of a Nativity Scene when he created one featuring real animals in the small town of Greccio in 1223.
In such a scene as the Presepe, you may have to look hard to find the image of Jesus and Mary and Joseph, so colourful and busy is the scene but all the townspeople are there cobblers and bakers, playing children and working women, and perhaps as we gaze on such a scene we can and do become a part of it ourselves, part of the crowd, one of the people.
It’s a significant image that reminds us that God was not just present two-thousand years ago in that small scene of a traditional stable seen by only a few. Christ is born into the town, into the region, into the country, into the continent, into the world, into the cosmos.
The Incarnation isn’t just a past event but a present, ongoing reality. Jesus’ parting words to his Apostles in the gospel according to Matthew is, “I will be with you until the end of time.” It is Matthew, too, who at the every beginning of his gospel, quoting Isaiah, says that Jesus is ‘Emmanuel’, a name which means “God is with us”
Our Christmas celebrations not only celebrate a past event but a present reality. This year our Nativity Scene will be placed at the entranceway to the Lady Chapel, and we are called to draw near, to make that journey, that procession, that pilgrimage, just like the shepherds who went to “see all that had happened,” and like those Magi whose journey was so much longer.
The scene becomes a shrine, and as we pray at it and bring our offerings there, we are drawn into its holiness, recognising we are part of the shrine scene too, for Christ has comes to dwell with us. In all the difficulties and dangers that people have experienced over the last year may this truth be felt ever more deeply.
We may have not been around 2000 years ago to have peered into that manger but as a reminder of the Mystery of the Incarnation and the presence of Christ born among us, we could, if we really wanted, carve ourselves into a figure to be placed into the Nativity Scene, or maybe we can be represented a bit more humbly by a toilet roll!