one of the highlights of my time spent in Rome as part of my studies was the anticipation of seeing the various Nativity scenes unveiled around the city this time of the year. Coming from Sydney, I was amazed at the accepted public display of faith through the Nativity Scene in: public squares; shop windows; shopping centre forecourts; apartment foyers; etc. It was such an open and natural part of the Italian culture. I was especially fond of the personalised local touches the nativity scenes included. I recall one Nativity scene having crabs, a Mediterranean seal, and the famous swarming starlings of Rome.
The story of Christmas is the story that God lives amongst us. Yet, in most of the Nativity scenes, the Holy Family would still be dressed in C1st Palestinian clothing, but it was the local animals that somehow made it more tangible. I think we need to include a platypus, wombat and kangaroo in our own nativity scene. Or perhaps Nativity scene characters that symbolise a refugee, a widow(er), a lonely husband or wife, an addict, a cancer patient, a corrupt official, etc. God is in the midst of all of this anxiety and messiness.
Pope Francis has this week written a letter encouraging us to reflect on the Nativity scene and its meaning. He writes:
The enchanting image of the Christmas crèche, so dear to the Christian people, never ceases to arouse amazement and wonder. The depiction of Jesus’ birth is itself a simple and joyful proclamation of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. The nativity scene is like a living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture.
With this Letter, I wish to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the nativity scene in the days before Christmas, but also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares. Great imagination and creativity is always shown in employing the most diverse materials to create small masterpieces of beauty. It is my hope that this custom will never be lost and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived.