On a Christmas Eve (1223), in the small Italian village of Greccio, in order to highlight the coming of God-with-us into the world, St. Francis of Assisi re-enacted the birth of Jesus as inspired by the Gospel narratives. What was so unique about it was that he used living creatures, people and animals, in the setting of a stable on a Mount Greccio.
The re-enactment of the incarnation scene remains a wonderful way of engaging our bodily senses and imagination in the mystery of God's presence.
It's delightful to hear the story of a three-year-old helping his mother unpack their nativity set and announce each piece as he removed its tissue paper wrappings. "Here's the donkey!" "Here's a king and a camel!" When he finally got to the tiny infant lying in a manger he proclaimed, "Here's Baby Jesus in his car seat!" Well, it wasn't a car seat, but to a three year old it looked like one.
Some adaptations are an act of creative piety. While visiting Chiclayo, Peru, I noted that one nativity scene contained a small red toy fire engine, a statue of the Sacred Heart, and a picture of an elderly gentleman. Upon inquiry about these unusual additions, I was informed about the fire engine was a gesture of sharing, "Jesus needs something to play with." The statute was a religious treasure and "a sign of the abundant love of God." The picture was a sacred memorial of a beloved grandfather and "a prayer for eternal life."
There is one person seemingly missing from all these nativity scenes that I would like to add - John the Baptist!
First of all, because prior to the birth of Jesus, Mary goes to stay with Elizabeth. St. Luke's Gospel reminds us that as soon as Mary steps into Elizabeth's house, the child in Elizabeth's womb starts to dance for joy. It is as though the fetus has heard God's music, singing around the baby Jesus in Mary's womb, and he just has to dance. What does John the Baptist tell us - listen to God's music! Dance! Recognize the simple joy of the child in the womb, dancing to celebrate the presence of Jesus.
Get ready for the upcoming angelic melody as the angels rejoice and the world celebrates God's coming to restore the world to its proper song. "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on Earth peace among those whom he favours!"
Second, we need to hear the adult voice of John the Baptist announce, "The Kingdom of Heaven is near.'" Throughout the four weeks of the Advent season, each year, we encounter this strange lonely figure sounding his message out in the wilderness, "Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight." He proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Most of us are aware of a deep hunger at the core of our being. Some experience it as the need for something that will give them the inner strength to cope with life, or peace of mind and freedom from feelings of fear and anxiety. There is also a sense of being wounded, hurt, broken, and in need of healing.
Many, it seems, feel cut off and isolated from other people and from nature. They long for harmony.
Sometimes, our great and awesome God seems almost untouchable. That is where Jesus comes in. He is God-with-us (Emmanuel), walking among us and showing us what God is like. I think C. S. Lewis put it well: "The Son of God became a man that men (and women) might become sons (and daughters) of God."
God became a man so that we might become God's child. There must come a moment in our life when we turn from our sins and invite Jesus Christ to come into our life to be our Saviour and Lord.
Maybe we have to add ourselves to the nativity scene!
☩ F. B. Henry
Bishop of Calgary