ADMIRABILE SIGNUM: On the Meaning and Significance of the Nativity Scene
Excerpts from Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter on the significance of the Christmas crèche. He signed the Letter during his visit to the Italian town of Greccio on Dec. 1.
The enchanting image of the Christmas crèche, so dear to the Christian people, never ceases to arouse amazement and wonder. The depiction of Jesus' birth is itself a simple and joyful proclamation of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. The Nativity scene is like a living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture. As we contemplate the Christmas story, we are invited to set out on a spiritual journey, drawn by the humility of the God who became man in order to encounter every man and woman. We come to realise that so great is His love for us that He became one of us, so that we in turn might become one with Him.
With this Letter, I wish to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the Nativity scene in the days before Christmas, but also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares. 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.
2. The origin of the Christmas crèche is found above all in certain details of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, as related in the Gospels. Coming into this world, the Son of God was laid in the place where animals feed. Hay became the first bed of the One who would reveal Himself as "the bread come down from heaven" (Jn 6:41). Saint Augustine, with other Church Fathers, was impressed by this symbolism: "Laid in a manger, he became our food" (Sermon 189, 4). Indeed, the Nativity scene evokes a number of the mysteries of Jesus' life and brings them close to our own daily lives.
But let us go back to the origins of the Christmas crèche so familiar to us. We need to imagine ourselves in the little Italian town of Greccio, near Rieti. Saint Francis stopped there, most likely on his way back from Rome where, on November 29, 1223, he had received the confirmation of his Rule from Pope Honorius III. Francis had earlier visited the Holy Land, and the caves in Greccio reminded him of the countryside of Bethlehem. It may also be that the "Poor Man of Assisi" had been struck by the mosaics in the Roman Basilica of Saint Mary Major depicting the birth of Jesus, close to the place where, according to an ancient tradition, the wooden panels of the manger are preserved.
The Franciscan Sources describe in detail what then took place in Greccio. Fifteen days before Christmas, Francis asked a local man named John to help him realize his desire "to bring to life the memory of that babe born in Bethlehem, to see as much as possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of His infant needs, how He lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, He was laid upon a bed of hay". At this, his faithful friend went immediately to prepare all that the Saint had asked. On December 25, friars came to Greccio from various parts, together with people from the farmsteads in the area, who brought flowers and torches to light up that holy night. When Francis arrived, he found a manger full of hay, an ox and a donkey. All those present experienced a new and indescribable joy in the presence of the Christmas scene. The priest then solemnly celebrated the Eucharist over the manger, showing the bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist. At Greccio, there were no statues; the Nativity scene was enacted and experienced by all who were present.
This is how our tradition began—with everyone gathered in joy around the cave, with no distance between the original event and those sharing in its mystery.
Thomas of Celano, the first biographer of Saint Francis, notes that this simple and moving scene was accompanied by the gift of a marvellous vision—one of those present saw the Baby Jesus Himself lying in the manger. From the Nativity scene of that Christmas in 1223, "everyone went home with joy".
To Jesus Through Mary
Christ came to us through Mary’s own flesh and blood, and Science tells us that a bit of His cellular being remained there.
How wonderful it is that the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary always falls within the start of Advent. Thus, in the very season during which we wait with longing for the Word made flesh to come to us as Emmanuel (God-with-us), we are invited to consider how deeply planned, how "not random" is His coming, by pondering His Mother Mary, and the very fact of her saying 'yes' to be the Mother of God so that the Word could become flesh and redeem humanity.
"Without God's Son, nothing could exist; without Mary's son, nothing could be redeemed," declared St Anselm in a sermon, also noting that God is "Father" of the created world and Mary the "Mother" of the world recreated in Christ. Anselm completes his thought by echoing the words of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary: "Truly, the Lord is with you, to whom the Lord granted that all nature should owe as much to you as to himself."
The concept may appear incomprehensible. Mary's own conception had itself been pre-ordained by God as necessary within the drama and process of our salvation—a moment of Creation untainted by the brokenness of original sin, which had accompanied every human conception since the first sin of Eden.
From the very beginnings of her existence within the womb of Anne, her mother, the body and soul of Mary were created as the imperatively Immaculate vessel required for the containment and growth of the Incarnation of the All Holy. Mary was created with the graces that would render her a fit Ark for the New Covenant, and not only for the time of Jesus' gestation within her womb, but throughout her entire life.
This is a fact the Church might appreciate even more today than at any time previously, thanks to science and the discovery of microchimerism.
We have learned that within the process of microchimerism, every baby conceived by a woman leaves within her a microscopic bit of his or her cellular being, even if gestation is interrupted, and remains with her forever.
Mary, then, was indeed a tabernacle for the Divinity—not for a limited time, but for all of her life, as these invisible but real reserves of the Christ remained within her.
ADVENT: A Time for Reconciliation of Opposites
The Experience of John the Baptist: (a first-person account)
As the penultimate prophet,
being Jesus' cousin made my task all the more difficult.
"In form and feature, face and limb,
we grew so like each other
that folks often got taking me for him
and each for one another." (The Twins - Henry Sambrooke)
Are you the one to come? Or do we wait for another?
What compounded the mistaken identity
was something more than our shared DNA.
We shared a vision born of the Spirit
that generated a resonance between us,
even as we were yet unborn.
I danced like David, in the womb of my mother,
as I stood before the Ark of the Covenant,
when Mary came over to visit us.
It was the moment of recognition
and it defined then my role as a prophet.
I had my task neatly cut out.
My prophecy would be validated
through the reconciliation of opposites.
I was born, the son of a mother past the age of child-bearing.
Jesus was born, conceived by the Holy Spirit.
It was I who was born in His image and likeness.
Isaiah had long since foretold
that when the promised one came,
this would be the case.
"He will not judge by outward appearances;
"The wolf will live with the lamb; the leopard lie down with the kid;
the lion would eat straw like cattle;
the infant play harmlessly over the cobra's hole". 1
It is the essence of a mystery
to hold within itself a tension of opposites.
Now, the greatest of them all was about to be revealed.
The voice that proclaimed it, however,
would only be heard in the wilderness. 2
India continues to fail its Women
Multiple rape cases reported from across India show that little has changed in securing India's women.
In December 2012, in a case that generated international headlines, a 23-year-old physical therapy student was gang-raped by six men on a bus in New Delhi. After 45 minutes of torture, the woman—dubbed Nirbhaya, or fearless, by the Indian press, which is prohibited by law from naming victims of sexual assault—was thrown off the bus. Found in critical condition, she died of her injuries in a Singapore hospital less than two weeks later.
Four of the men who raped and murdered Nirbhaya were ultimately convicted and sentenced to death, in a high-profile trial that also generated international headlines. Their conviction was appealed all the way to India's Supreme Court, which upheld the death sentences in 2017.
But despite their conviction and the Indian government's promises to tackle rampant sexual violence, seven years after a crime that shocked the nation and the world, little has changed. The rape and gruesome murder of a veterinarian in Hyderabad, together with reports of rape cases from many other parts of the country in the last few days, has once again brought back the spotlight on how unsafe India is for women.
Rape is rampant in India
According to a June 2018 poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, India is the most dangerous country in the world for women. The most recent data from India's National Crime Records Bureau reveals that 38,947 cases of rape were registered in India in 2016—marking a 12.4 per cent increase from the previous year. At that rate, a woman is raped in India about every 15 minutes.
But even those figures might be underestimating the extent of the problem. Sexual assault survivors in India face innumerable hurdles in seeking justice, from stigma and abuse when trying to register cases with the police to trial delays and violence against witnesses. Often, this process itself serves to traumatise the victims again, dissuading many from reporting the crime in the first place. According to one study, based on the Indian government's National Family Health Survey, an estimated 99 per cent of rape cases in India go unreported.
Too Many Laws, Too Little Justice
The 2012 Nirbhaya case triggered a host of legal and policy reforms. In 2013, Parliament passed a new anti-rape Act, which amended four major laws to make provisions relating to violence against women more stringent. Among other things, the new laws expand the definition of rape; add stalking, spying and acid attacks to a list of specific crimes against women; and require jail time for police who fail to register assaults or who commit them themselves. They also require healthcare providers to provide free medical care and examinations to victims of sexual assault, and include a legal provision for survivors to receive some form of financial reparation. In March 2014, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare issued guidelines to standardise medical and legal protocols for victims of sexual assault.
But five years after these policy changes, experts point to gaps in the fair implementation of legal reforms and guidelines for attending to survivors of sexual violence.
Majeed Memon, a leading criminal defence lawyer and a Member of Parliament, says that there is no lack of laws to prevent sexual crimes against women, or to ensure justice for survivors. "The problem is, there are too many laws, and too little justice."