Dear Sisters and Brothers –
When I was a child, one of the most coveted responsibilities when we decorated our family Christmas tree was placing the Christmas Crèche beneath the tree. My brother and I took turns, and each got to do it every other year. That was bearable until my younger sister was old enough to do it on her own – waiting for every third year was nearly unbearable!
The origin of this beloved Christmas tradition dates to 1223 and St. Francis of Assisi. In his book, The Life of St. Francis, St. Bonaventure tells the story best:
“It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, St. Francis determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox, and an ass to the place appointed.
The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.”
At St. Ignatius Parish, Christmas begins with a child of our community carrying the statue of Baby Jesus and gently placing him in the manger. We bless our Crèche, which becomes a place of prayer for pilgrims who visit throughout the Christmas season.
I often wonder if those who pray there are doing so as St. Ignatius suggests, placing themselves in the biblical scene. Are they watching Mary tenderly swaddle and rock her son or Joseph care for his family in the crude surroundings? What do they hear when the shepherds or Magi arrive? Whom else do they see at the crib of Emmanuel (God-with-Us) – deceased or living relatives or friends? The shepherds of today – those without homes on our city streets or undocumented immigrants seeking the safety of another country (which is the next chapter in the story of the Holy Family)? Other people in their lives who reveal the presence of God? And how are those praying interacting with this miracle of miracles?
St. Francis of Assisi was on to something nearly 800 years ago, and St. Ignatius was on to something when he invited us to imagine ourselves in this biblical scene; what they were on to was the mystery of God encountered in human flesh and blood. So, let Carolyn Winfrey Gillette’s words remind us:
“In this time of celebration, may we show what life can be,
as we care for God’s creation, as we serve the Prince of Peace.
Seeking justice everywhere, lifting burdens others bear,
may we gladly serve and pray—knowing why we live this way:
in one little baby’s birth, God knelt down to love the earth.”
Merry Christmas from the entire St. Ignatius Parish pastoral staff!
Oremus pro invicem.