An outdoor manger scene at St. Takla Maronite Catholic Church in Beirut. CNS photo/Johnny Antoun

Editorial: Mangers a must

  • December 4, 2019

If it’s true that the best ideas are often the simplest ones, then give credit to Pope Francis for endorsing an 800-year-old strategy to place Christ at the centre of Christmas.

He has called on all Christians to emulate St. Francis of Assisi who gave the world its first Nativity scene in 1223. The Pope now proposes a manger in every home and school, as well as in workplaces, prisons, hospitals and public spaces.

“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,” he wrote in a 3,000-word apostolic letter titled “Enchanting Image.”

Eight centuries ago,  inspired by a trip to the Holy Land, St. Francis received permission from Pope Honorius III to recreate the setting of Christ’s birth. He found a small cave in the Italian village of Greco, about 100 kilometres north of Rome, and set up a manger with hay, a live ox and donkey, and a feeding trough to serve as a crib.

From this simple beginning, the custom of erecting Nativity scenes spread across Europe and around the world, becoming a tradition that illustrated the fundamental meaning of Christmas and the holiness of that blessed night in Bethlehem. But as 21st-century society becomes strikingly more secular and Christmas alarmingly more commercial, the Pope quite rightly wants to ensure that the mission of St. Francis — to “recall the memory of that child who was born in Bethlehem” — remains the unshakeable core of what is celebrated at Christmas.

“The Nativity scene shows God as He came into our world, but it also makes us reflect on how our life is part of God’s own life,” the Pope wrote in his apostolic letter, released Dec. 1, the first Sunday of Advent. 

“It invites us to become His disciples if we want to attain ultimate meaning in life.”

An important step towards that discipleship is to reject the often-excessive materialism that seems to become more crushing each year as Advent arrives. Church historians tell us that St. Francis was inspired to build his original Nativity scene in response to what he perceived as shameless extravagance and intemperance prevalent among the 13th-century nobility. 

His creche deliberately called attention to the humility and simplicity of the Holy Family and the poverty into which Christ was born.

The austerity of that first Christmas, the image of a fragile child asleep on the hay wrapped in swaddling, is what Pope Francis now urges Catholics to honour by erecting a Nativity scene. That manger in Bethlehem offered few comforts, but it was rich with humility and holiness. 

During the seasons of Advent and Christmas, Christians are called to embrace those virtues with particular vigour. They aren’t hard to find. 

As the Pope says, start by contemplating the child in the manger.

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