This scene has been burned into my memory.
When I was seven we lived on a farm without electricity. On the day before Christmas, darkness deepened as my parents and I began our journey home from a trip into town. The nativity scene in a front yard was flooded by light. Mary, Joseph, the baby, shepherds, some animals, and the wise men were all there. The size of the tableau and the electric lighting impressed this scene into my memory, I can still see it vividly 75 years later.
The first nativity scene has been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, CE.
Francis set up a manger scene in the Italian village of Greccio. (The Italian word greccio in French is creche, meaning manger in English.) Francis used it as a means of telling the villagers about the birth of Jesus.
Although nativity scenes in North America are being supplanted by blow-up Santa's, snowmen and reindeer, the nativity scene is still found all over the world.
Some other memories of the creche scenes come to mind. While spending Christmas in California some years ago, we saw a large nativity scene sculptured from sand on the beach in San Diego. On another Christmas Eve, Jean and I walked a street in Calcutta to our guest house, and there in front of a home was a full-sized nativity scene. In Penticton, BC one church used their churchyard to replicate a part of Bethlehem with the nativity scene, live animals, and period shops occupied by people of their congregation.
The creche tells a story, and its an important one.
The writer of the gospel of Matthew and the author of the book of Luke created the first Christmas stories centered in Bethlehem. Matthew tells of important Gentile dignitaries from the East coming to Mary and Joseph’s home in Bethlehem to recognize and honour Jesus. They presented expensive gifts representing the dignity and significance of the baby’s birth.
The Luke account is set approximately ten to twelve years later than Matthew’s version. Joseph and Mary are forced by an emperor’s decree to travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem. There, Mary gives birth in a stable. This version includes angels announcing the birth to shepherds and shepherds visiting the baby.
These two stories have shown that from one end of the social scale, non-Jewish dignitaries from the East, to the lowly shepherd, and a heavenly chorus, each welcomed Jesus’ birth as a world-changing event.
Some biblical scholars have questioned the historical accuracy of the Bethlehem setting citing Nazareth as the more historically accurate place for Jesus’ birth.
Can you imagine Christmas without Bethlehem? But that's a story for another day...
The iconic creche, started by St. Francis, still illustrates the central message of Christian Christmas.
A star or an angel decorates the top of most Christmas trees even in secular homes. Children dramatize the nativity event in church programs annually.
Whether in Bethlehem or Nazareth, the richness and themes of these stories lie less in the setting and more in the metaphor and the imagery.
The star is a symbol of a guiding light in an often-dark world.
Angels breaking into a dark night with song, an image of God’s presence in difficult times.
A humble manger, crib for a ruler to be, a metaphor of divine rule crushing the dominating power of Herod, Caesar, Hitler, or... Putin.
The event, depicted in the creche, introduced a new era, a new social dynamic. Wrongs will be made right and as the prophet Isaiah says, “swords will be converted to ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.”
But still the need goes on and wars are fought.
As one Christmas carol puts it;
And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
This Christmas, Ukrainian families, by the thousands, will be separated by the displacement of war. Others will be without electrical power, water, and warmth or even a home.
Hundreds of men and women live in tents or bus shelters in our cities’ cold winters. Indigenous women go missing, women of all ethnicities are abused and trafficked, and youth struggle to find meaning.
Our world hangs in a delicate balance of extinction from rapid climate change.
Will the light of a shining star guide us through this dark night? Can light, song, and the announcement of the Saviour bring hope to hurting and hungry people today?
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.
I believe the generosity and skills of people everywhere provide hope and healing.
Last Christmas the Salvation Army provided food and toy hampers to 329,000 people in Winnipeg, Downtown missions provided meals to hundreds and beds for those without a place to sleep in cities and towns everywhere. Churches and other community organizations put together hampers for those in need. Diplomats struggle behind the scenes to work out a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine and solutions to our rapidly deteriorating environment. Politicians are urged to find solutions to low-cost housing for the homeless.
Is it the small individual acts of love prompted by this birth event that eventually will bring healing to our broken world?
From the inspirational stories in Matthew and Luke, a Franciscan monk had the idea to create an iconic image, the creche, by which to share with his illiterate congregants the beautiful story of that first Christmas.
The creche today still projects the Christmas message – God is present in our world.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
St. Francis of Assisi