She laid Him in a manger
The Lucan Gospel story of the birth of Jesus calls for the whole world, and not only for Israel, to welcome the birth of the Son of David. We are invited to follow shepherds and kings, saints and sinners, and that long cortège of witnesses of all generations as they journey to Christ, encounter Him, and share their message of good news with a world steeped in darkness. And yet there is a tremendous and rather terrifying paradox at the heart of Luke’s Gospel story: the great heir to the Davidic line comes to inherit his ancestor’s throne in the form of a tiny, powerless baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger (2:12).
There is also the joyful and saving paradox of the power of God manifested in this child: those who accept this paradox are invited to make it, in the light of the cross and the resurrection, the standard of their deepest attitudes. Through the mystery of the Incarnation, we are not given one new, mighty, and glorious throne from which our God will rule over us – but two ways by which God will reign among us: from a crib in Bethlehem and from a cross in Jerusalem. We cannot have one throne without the other. They go together.
Saint Francis of Assisi sought to convey the Christmas story through the Nativity scene enacted in the Umbrian hilltop town of Greccio on December 25, 1223. Francis made a living Nativity scene, to be able to contemplate and adore it, but above all to know how best to make known the message of the Son of God who for our sakes was stripped of everything and became a little child. Francis’ intuition was astonishing: the Nativity scene is not only a new Bethlehem because it re-evokes the historical event and focuses attention on its message, but it is also an occasion of tremendous consolation and deep happiness.
The Nativity scene celebrates the covenant between God and man, between earth and heaven. Thanks to Saint Francis, Christians are able to understand that at Christmas God truly is “Emmanuel,” the God-with-us, from Whom no barrier or distance separates us. In that Child, God became so close to each of us... that we can establish an intimate rapport of profound affection with Him, just as we do with a newborn child.
Today look at the Nativity scenes in our homes and churches: the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph had their firstborn child in the midst of great poverty and hardship, and yet they are filled with deep joy because they love each other, help each other, and above all, are certain that in their history God is at work, present in the Infant Jesus. Those who have not understood the mystery of Christmas have not understood the decisive element of Christian existence: that those who do not accept Jesus with the heart of a child cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This is what Saint Francis wished to tell the Christian world of his time and of all times, even unto today.
A sand sculpture Nativity scene and 23-metre-tall Christmas tree in St. Peter's Square in Rome (Vatican Media)
Many are the symbols that are used to communicate to us the greatness of the birth of Jesus Christ in human history. Some would like to place these symbols in opposition to one another. There is no opposition between the Christmas tree and the crib or manger. They are two different representations, one coming from Germany, the other from Italy, and they have no other purpose than to commemorate the Incarnation of the Saviour.
“God became man so that man could become God” is something the Fathers of the Church had no hesitation in proclaiming. The custom of placing the Christmas tree and crib near one another alludes to paradise, the tree of life, next to the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It reminds us of Adam’s creation, and of Christ, the New Adam, whose life is enclosed by the crib and cross. Tree and birth are symbols that virtually contain in themselves the history of salvation. As Saint John Paul II once said: “Death came from the tree of paradise, life resurrected from the tree of the Cross. Thus the tree belongs to the birth, alluding to the Cross, the tree of life.”
During the Christmas Midnight Mass at the Vatican in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI offered this wonderful insight:
“Heaven does not belong to the geography of space, but to the geography of the heart. And the heart of God, during the Holy Night, stooped down to the stable: the humility of God is Heaven. And if we approach this humility, then we touch Heaven. Then the Earth too is made new. With the humility of the shepherds, let us set out, during this Holy Night, towards the Child in the stable! Let us touch God’s humility, God’s heart! Then his joy will touch us and will make the world more radiant.”