MERRY CHRISTMAS, or as we say in Italy, BUON NATALE!
Yesterday I walked around our house and counted 12 nativity scenes. Now, remember, our house is pretty big. And we’re religious folks. But, still, Twelve! And this doesn’t include individual rooms and ones that I probably missed. And half of these were on one floor alone! I’m beginning to think that Fr. Antonio, who decorates our house, might have a problem, ha, ha.
Last year, I traveled to Greccio which is sort of between Rome and Assisi. It is here that in 1223 St. Francis of Assisi created what many call the first nativity scene. After receiving permission from Pope Honorius III (Francis obviously wanted to be on the nice list), he set up a manger and brought in live animals to reenact the first Christmas. This tradition continues today with our nativity scenes – whether they are beautiful terra cotta figurines, plastic light-up statues in the front yard, made out of a shoebox and toilet paper tubes, or a childrens’ pageant featuring more angels and shepherds than you can imagine. All these bring to mind the birth of Jesus.
|The site of the first live nativity scene in Greccio, Italy.|
|My nephew's nativity scene from a few years ago.|
But why are we fascinated with these scenes? And why are there twelve in my house? St. Francis created his as a way to teach the local peasants about the Christmas story. Many couldn’t read and nearly none understood the Latin used in the liturgy of the time. While times have changed, the crèche continues to serve as a reminder and teaching tool of that night so long ago in Bethlehem. But, I’ve been reflecting on another reason as well this year.
It’s about the love.
When we look at a nativity scene, what do we see? We could answer this in many ways, but I think we see love. There is Mary and Joseph who, despite a rocky start to their relationship, both said “Yes” to each other and to the wild plan of God. There are the shepherds and magi who go to Bethlehem to see this wondrous and cosmic-altering event. We can’t forget the angels who sing the glory of God. There are the animals – as a child I always made sure they were pointing to the crib, each jockeying for a place so they could see the baby Jesus. And there is Love himself, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. As we look and ponder the crèche, we cannot help but see love – Love Incarnate. The Gospel of John reminds us that God so loved the world that God sent the only begotton son that we might have life. Here is Love, and Love is among us.
So, I must admit that I received a little inspiration for these thoughts today. As many of you probably know, my friend Ali passed away from cancer in 2011. Her husband Ben wanted to recreate some of their wedding pictures as a way to say farewell to their house…using their 3-year old daughter in the place of Ali. You can read the whole story here. The pictures, taken by Ali’s sister Melanie, have gone viral around the world, and even landed on The Today Show (I know famous people). You can see the interview here.
So what does this have to do with Christmas and crèches? In an interview Ben simply and profoundly stated that “It’s about the love.” And Melanie added, “Many people have asked me how I felt while doing that photo session. What I want them to know is that this isn't a story about grief and loss and hurt. Yes, I've gone through those emotions and still do but that's not what I want people to see in these photos. This is a story about love." Yes, it’s about healing and moving on, it’s about looking back and remembering. But, when we come down to it (and “it” is just about everything), “it’s about the love” and the hope that comes from love. In the case of Ali’s family, it’s about the love that is still present and the love that continues to flourish. In our nativity scenes, too, it’s about the love that is in our midst and the love that continues to blossom. And, that’s why we turn to our Christmas crèches and why the world was captured by these photos of Ben and Olivia – to be reminded of love and to see love, the love that is so needed in a broken world. Speaking of the photos (and maybe even a crèche), Ben commented that “the memories of Ali don’t live in that house. They live with us, in our hearts.” It’s not just about love that came one night many years ago or one day during a photo shoot. But, it’s about the love that lives on and continues to makes itself known in our midst.
So, in the end, maybe 12 crèches aren’t enough. Maybe we need more to remind us of the infinite love that surrounds us. Or, maybe, we need to be a more present form of love in our families and in our communities and in our world. May we all be as fortunate as Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and magi, the angels and all the animals – to look upon Love, to see Love, and to be Love for each other. And may we all be fortunate to be surrounded by friends and family who remind us that “It’s all about love.” Melanie wrote on Facebook that “heaven and earth aren’t really so far apart after all.” On this Christmas day when heaven embraced earth, perhaps truer words were never spoken.
My dear friends, may you know the joy of love this Christmas Day and beyond.
Buon Natale! Merry Christmas! Ciao!