The Storybook Manger of the Christmas Crèche
Above a snow-blanketed valley upon an Italian mountainside is the quaint village of Greccio, and here the gentle Saint Francis prepared a manger peopled with a donkey, an ox, and townspeople, one of whom assumed the mantle of Mary, another, of Joseph, and then in tender compassion, bathed in tears of joy, Francis sang the Christmas Mass, offering praise for birth, for life, for salvation by the “Babe of Bethlehem”. We cannot know if this was our first crèche, our first Living Nativity, though we can say that the Christmas next, the good people of Greccio brought forth many crèche of many Nativity in cave and manger, and we can say that year-upon-year the tradition grew and spread from town-to-town, nation-to-nation, home-to-home, as in the crèche that each year remembers Saint Francis, Mary, Joseph, and the Babe of Bethlehem upon your fireside mantle, tabletop, or other place of homekeeping and memory.*
Our Canonical Bible is often named “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, not for its fantasy, but for its Truth. The pivotal event of the great story is the Nativity, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in a manager, that area of a trough, covered so that domesticated animals might feed while sheltered from wind, rain, and sun. The event occurs some four-fifths through this greatest story at that point of rising action, prelude to the story’s summit (the Crucifixion), its descending action and resolution. The eponymous Luke, a master storyteller, likely, the companion of Paul, with reference to Saint Mark and to the lost “Sayings of Jesus” relates:
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. **
Have you wondered why our Classive Civilization cherishes life more dearly than does other civilizations, more than the death-eager Woke and the murderous communists … well, look to the sensitive story of the Manger, the mother, father, child, humbled in love, enlarged in hope. You will notice in the Nativity the organizing principle of classive American culture, the marriage of man-and-woman, that union which alone brings forth life, a baby who might come to know not only all things beneath the sun, but all that passes beyond the sun. You might recognize in the Babe of Bethlehem the promise of virtue, continuation of a consciousness which allows the universe to be known. More than this, you will recognize in the Babe of Bethlehem your child and other children of your extended family brought forth by each divine union.
What more is found in our crèche. Above the canopied Joseph, Mary and Babe, the angel. Surrounding the family, ox, donkey, sheep and other creatures of the yard, some looking with doe-eyed interest upon the scene. Beside these, the shepherds, simple and sweet, modestly clothed. Approaching, magic men of the East, richly adorned, the Magi come from Persia in following a star to witness the birth of a king, each pausing in obeisance, presenting frankincense, myrrh, or gold. Round about the manger and yard other persons of myth, legend, invention as each family will find its figurines in shopping or by inheritance.
Mine is a simple crèche, though I’ve friends who boast extensive tableaus, the quaint gifts of generations who are remembered, who are honored in Christmas, our annual season of hope in renewal. I wonder … what do you remember of family on this anniversary of Christmas, what is your tradition, does it include a crèche, and if so, do you delay until midnight or morning to lay the baby Jesus in the manger, causing all assembled to wait upon the appearance of life and hope. For my part, tomorrow, upon the silk yard of my crèche, beneath the draping canopy of the peopled manger, the Babe will be carefully, gently laid, and there with tender compassion I will recall those of my family who brought me to life, and with gratitude I will pray that those who are through me shall continue this best story of life’s promise, of love fulfilled.
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* From an account by Saint Bonaventure, recounting an event in the life of Saint Francis, 1233 in the village of Greccio, Lazio Regio, Italy.
For more on the Storybook Houses of our American Tradition, see The Beautiful Home.
Featured image, Live Christmas Crèche, credit: Anneka
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