The world was present for Christ’s birth

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  • November 28, 2013

KINGSTON, ONT. - Local Catholic Tony Vella had an effective evangelizing idea. How to remind local schoolchildren about the birth of Jesus amid the commercial clutter of the season? The St. Paul the Apostle parishioner thought that the best way to remind children about Jesus was to show them, well, Jesus.

So Vella began to collect nativity scenes, retrieving them from yard sales and flea markets, and then fixing up the broken bits, painting the figurines, arranging the settings. With dozens and dozens of them now, an annual exhibition takes place at St. Paul’s parish, and this year local Catholic schools arranged field trips for the children to come and look at the Holy Family in Bethlehem.

It’s an idea about 800 years old, inspiring the imagination of Catholics since St. Francis of Assisi arranged the first nativity scene as a means of deepening the devotion of the faithful to the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation. The striking thing about Vella’s nativity scenes is their variety. It is not mere folklore tradition that dresses the Holy Family and their visitors in the local costumes of the place, or even goes so far as to make the figures appear ethnically Korean, African or Inuit. It is a theological point, that in becoming incarnate of the Blessed Virgin, God has united Himself to every human person, every nation, every culture. So the Catholic imagination has no trouble portraying the Holy Family in the guise of cultures never seen in first-century Bethlehem. It too makes a biblical point — after all, were not Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem because a census of the whole world was decreed? Vella’s nativity scenes show that the whole world was, in fact, present.

My favourite is the Arctic nativity scene, with polar bears in attendance on the newborn baby. In this year when St. Francis has drawn greater attention with election of his namesake Pope, it is a good reminder of the poor man of Assisi’s pastoral, biblical and theological sophistication, all expressed in the animals at the crib.

Is it in Mark or John that we learn about the ox and the ass in the stable where Jesus was born? Trick question — neither Mark’s Gospel nor John’s speak at all about the infancy of Jesus. So it must be in Matthew and Luke? Tricked again. They do tell us about the infancy, and we read about the manger (Luke 2:7), but there is nothing about the ox and ass. We are told that Jesus was born in an unusual place because the inns were full of census travellers. Perhaps the stable or cave was quiet and suitably private for a most unusual birth, and the presence of animals may have provided some heat for Mary and Joseph as they awaited the delivery of Jesus.

St. Francis is so popular because he had a gift for bringing the Gospels alive in his simplicity of life and the boldness of his gestures. The nativity scene is of a piece with his whole life, a dramatic presentation of the Gospel, focused on Christ in the simplicity of the stable.

Why did Francis add the ox and the ass? Where did he get that idea? He was famous for exhorting his brothers to preach the Gospel always, “using words if necessary.” The ox and ass show Francis’ understanding of the whole of Scriptures. The animals are present because of the prophetic book of Isaiah: “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3). By putting the ox and ass near the manger, Francis was teaching that the Christ Child is the fulfilment of the prophecies, but we often don’t recognize Him when He comes. The same truth is taught in the prologue of John’s Gospel, that the Word came to His own, and we did not recognize Him.

May it be for us this Advent to recognize Him, to be, as it were, among those first friends of the Lord around the manger, including the ox and the ass. They bring to my mind another connection. St. Thomas Aquinas, large and lumbering, was given the nickname the “dumb ox.” St. Francis, legend has it, on his deathbed thanked his donkey for the services it had given him, and the donkey apparently wept. The ox and the ass (and the polar bear?), perhaps they stand in for the saints, the friends of the Lord.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.cardus.ca/convivium.)

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