Mgr Anthony Figueiredo
Christians know when to feast and when to fast! After the seemingly unending fast of this unprecedented year, the Vatican, alongside the Italians, has launched Christmas preparations with gusto on the heels of celebrating the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception – a national holiday in Italy.
Splendid displays are adorning store front windows, streets are decked with twinkling lights, and beautifully decorated Christmas trees and nativity scenes take central place in town squares and churches.
Yet the unveiling of the nativity scene in St Peter’s Square raised eyebrows. A renowned Vatican art historian commented: “So the Vatican presepe (nativity scene) has been unveiled … turns out 2020 could get worse …”.
What some have described as ‘Martian’ or ‘mummified’ cylindrical pillar figures include an astronaut and a seeming Darth Vader coming to adore the Christ child.
Notwithstanding the weirdness of what hits the eye, three points can help us to understand this year’s display. First, the ceramic figures in the crib employ a style and aesthetic typical of the Abruzzo town of Italy from where the original 54-statue collection hails. They may also depict the timeframe in which it was constructed – between 1965 and 1975, when a group of students and teachers took artistic liberty in portraying the Holy Family. Perhaps they were thinking of Christ coming for peoples even beyond this planet with the first Moon landing in 1969.
Second, Abruzzo has suffered greatly in recent years. Four powerful earthquakes struck within four hours in January 2017, claiming many lives and wreaking destruction. Some are still shut out of a home – just like the Holy Family on that first Christmas night. Moreover, in the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the number of deaths and infections meant that Abruzzo remained longer than any other Italian region in the highest level of restrictions with the corresponding damage to livelihoods in an otherwise stunningly beautiful area. Having their nativity scene displayed in St Peter’s Square is undoubtedly an encouragement to the suffering locals.
Third, in an audience granted to a delegation from Abruzzo, Pope Francis called on us all to look beyond the aesthetic beauty of the crib: “By contemplating the Holy Family and the various characters, we are drawn to their disarming humility.” Perhaps the nativity piece speaks a word of hope for all who have been disarmed and humbled by the pandemic.
This brings us back to St Francis of Assisi and the origins of the nativity scene. St Francis, like Jesus, was born in a stable. His mother feared a difficult delivery, and consequently did not want to deliver in the house. As she entered labour, she asked to be taken down to the adjoining stable and gave birth to Francis there.
Three years before his death, Francis desired to spend Christmas in Greccio, a small town between Rome and Assisi, where his friars had been given shelter in caves by a wealthy local, John of Velita. Some days prior to Christmas, Francis told John: “I wish to do something that will recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem and set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, how, with an ox and an ass standing by, He lay upon the hay where he had been placed.” John did just as Francis ordered, and the first nativity scene was with us.
Imagine that Christmas night in 1223. The Brothers were called from their various places. With candles and torches, the local inhabitants lit up the night like the day. The people came and were given hope in the midst of the cold and darkness. Holy Mass was celebrated over the manger with Francis serving as deacon. He powerfully sang the Christmas Gospel. Then he preached to the people, proclaiming the birth of the poor King in Bethlehem. It is said that when Francis pronounced the word ‘Bethlehem’, his voice sounded like the bleating of a sheep. One man, who was present, recounted how the child in the manger looked dead at first. But, as soon as Francis approached the child, it was as if the child came to life.
Just as for that man, the vision speaks to us in this pandemic year. Suffering can lead to cynicism about a God who seems to care little about what we are going through. Yet the Child Jesus still lies in our hearts, waiting to be roused as ‘God with us’ – Emmanuel – in the journey to start anew.
One final interesting historical fact is worthy of attention in these times. The hay that had been placed in the manger in Greccio was kept and touched to the bodies of those suffering from various illnesses in the town and neighbouring villages. By God’s mercy, they obtained the health that they sought.
Perhaps this is the call that Pope Francis makes to us – to look beyond the passing aesthetic beauty of the crib in the most important square of Christendom. More important is to allow ourselves to identify with, be touched and healed by the ‘disarming humility’ of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo has served in various capacities at the Vatican and as a Spiritual Director for over 20 years. He is a regular guest analyst of Church affairs for media networks throughout the world.
Photo: This year’s Vatican nativity scene has drawn criticism from some. Created by students and teachers of Castelli’s F.A. Grue Art Institute between 1965 and 1975, it demands that viewers “look beyond the passing aesthetic beauty of the crib, to identify with, be touched and healed by the ‘disarming humility of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” (CNS photo/Paul Haring)