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The Nativity Scene

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Contemplating the Nativity scene, the Belen, St. John of God tells us: “If you wish to see and contemplate the beauty on earth, ask the Lord to give you the eyes to see a young girl with a little child on her arms in a portico of Bethlehem. There is nothing more beautiful.”

To recall the first Nativity scene made by St. Francis of Assisi in the little town of Greccio Italy (December 1223), and to explain its significance today, Pope Francis has written a lovely Apostolic Letter (Admirable Signum) On the Meaning and Importance of the Nativity Scene (December 2019). In this wonderful message, the Pope invites each one of us – believers - to contemplate the mystery of Jesus’ Birth at Christmas. In six pages through ten numbers, the Pope calls us to imagine the Nativity of Jesus at an inn in Bethlehem. It is a grateful letter full of love and tenderness, another song of praise to meaningful popular piety. I wish to present hereafter some basic points of the especial letter of Pope Francis and add my personal comments and reflection.


With faith, let us imagine the scene of the Nativity of Jesus. It is night. Bethlehem is covered by darkness. There is the sound of silence: nature sleeps, and the mountains and the valleys. In the inn, people sleep. One can smell dry hay, and hear the slow and rhythmic breathing of donkeys and other animals. One can also hear the soft murmur of surrounding streams.

In the center of the inn, we can see a little child, whose name is Jesus, on a manger surrounded by his mother Mary, and his guardian Joseph. Above the manger are the angels and the guiding star. On the floor are the shepherds kneeling before the crib. There are also some domestic animals, including the ox, the donkey and sheep warming up the little Child. Three kings or wise men are on the way to Bethlehem and already close to the inn.

We contemplate the manger, where the Child was placed: “There was no other place for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7). Among the people in front of the crib, there are the shepherds, the first to arrive after hearing of the birth of this Child. They represent the humble and the poor people: “the poor are the privileged part of this mystery; often they are the first to recognize God’s presence in our midst” (Apostolic Letter, 5).

Fronting the crib, one can see, at the right side Saint Joseph, husband of Mary and guardian and protector of Mother and Child. He is the “just man” of the Gospel, that is, the righteous, honest and faithful man who obediently does the will of God. He is standing and bowing to the Child. He has, in one hand, the staff of the pilgrim who will take Mother and Child first to Egypt and later to Nazareth. He has, in his left hand a lighted lamp dispelling the darkness around the manger. A man of deep faith who accepted the mystery surrounding the motherhood of his wife Mary and of the birth of the Child.  

At the left side of the Child in the manger is his Mother Mary, the contemplative soul who continues – and will continue through the life of his Child - meditating on everything happening around Jesus: the mystery of the Incarnation, the growing of the Child, his life, death and resurrection. Mary was invited by God the Father through the angel to be, with the power of the Holy Spirit, the Mother of his Only Begotten Son Jesus Christ. She, the humble and obedient servant, said “yes,” “Fiat”: “I am the Lord’s servant; let it be done according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

On the center of the Nativity scene is the Child Jesus, the powerful light – like the sun – in the inn. We contemplate the Son of God as a child, who is like any child at birth: “He sleeps, takes milk from her mother, cries and plays like every other child.” God appears as a child, the Son of God as a little helpless child!  For believers, this is awesome, amazing, the most amazing grace! “And the Word was made flesh and lived among us” (Jn 1:11). Marvelous indeed: “He became what we are that we might become what He is” (St. Athanasius).

The last to arrive at the inn are the Three Kings or wise men from the East, still on the way but already close to the crib. They come with their rich and meaningful gifts for the Child: Gold to mean the Child’s kingship, frankincense to signify the Child’s divinity, and myrrh that points to the death and burial of Jesus as a human being like us (cf. Apostolic Letter, 9). 


As we contemplate the Nativity scene with great wonder, we may learn some essential lessons for our life. From the shepherds, we learn gratitude, joy, and humility. This grateful and joyful humility of the poor invites us “not to be fooled by wealth and fleeting promises of happiness” (Apostolic Letter, 6).

Mary and Joseph lived the mystery of the Incarnation in the presence of God. From Mary, we become fully aware of her complete obedience to the will of God in times of joy as well as in times of distress and suffering – at Jesus' birth and death on the Cross: “To do whatever Jesus has told us (cf. Jn 2:5). Let it be! St. Joseph speaks to us of the grace of fidelity: to be faithful to the demands of our faith in Jesus, to carry our cross with patience and joy, to share and forgive, and thus become holy by just doing our daily deeds with God’s grace and love in his divine presence.  

The Three Kings or wise men from the East urge us to read the signs of the times, to be vigilant and watch for the star that guides each one of us on the journey of life to the house of God the Father: using well God’s gifts of grace, faith, hope, and love, praying and forgiving, being compassionate to the needy that cross our path.

The scene of the Nativity invites us to read and meditate devoutly on the mystery surrounding the Birth of the Child Jesus.  It shows us “God’s tender love.” As the Gospel tells us, “God so loved the world that he gave it his Only-Begotten Son” – to save it, to redeem us all! It invites us, Pope Francis tells us, to “feel” and “touch” the poverty that God’s Son took upon himself in the Incarnation. It calls us to be good disciples of Jesus and to meet him in all our brothers and sisters, above all in those “in greatest need” (cf. Apostolic Letter, 3).


In a very deep way, the Nativity scene awakens in us fundamental questions that all people ask: Who am I? Who is the other person for me? Where do I come from? Where am I going? Why do I suffer? How will I die? Who or what is the object of my love?  And the most radical question: What is the meaning of life, of my life with others? The Child Jesus invites us to be his faithful, hopeful and loving disciples if we really want “to attain ultimate meaning in life” (Apostolic Letter, 8).

The lovely Nativity scene – the whole Christmas season, really - is like breathing fresh air that may transform our lives and renew us by casting out our selfishness and by living a simple lifestyle that leads us to share something with and serve others. It is a powerful invitation to love Jesus – and love him more deeply. I remember St. Bernard’s story. When he was a boy, he had one night a vision of the crib. This vision made such an impact on him that every time he remembered it he cried. St. Bernard cried seeing the divine child in the manger.   

Blessed Angelico painted St. Dominic of Guzman kneeling before the crib of the Child Jesus, adoring him while contemplating the mystery of Christmas.  The attitude of adoration of Dominic – and of all saints and humble Christians - imitated the common attitude of all the main characters of the real play of the Nativity, namely, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men: they all knelt before the crib and adored the Child Jesus. And this is what Christians ought to do today: bow or kneel before the manger and adore the Child Jesus!

As it happened to the Christians who contemplated the Nativity scene put up by St. Francis of Assisi, we are overcome with joy, too. The people in Greccio went away with joy. Everyone! And we too: Joy to the world, a joy to you and me.”

After contemplating with the eyes of faith the scene of the Nativity, we close our prayerful, meditative moments by worshipping him, by venerating, revering, bowing or kneeling before him, and by submitting ourselves obediently to him: O come, let us adore him. O come, let us adore him. O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

By Fr. Fausto Gómez, OP.

Original Text