This photo features my Peruvian nativity scene. I purchased the first set of statues at The Inca Store, a shop featuring Peruvian products in our parish neighborhood in Toronto, Canada, when I was assigned there in the mid-to-late 1990s. Each year, I added another figure. So the set now on display grew gradually until it assumed its final form when I left Toronto in 2000. Every year since, I have reassembled this nativity scene in celebration of God’s becoming one of us in Jesus, calling all nations and cultures to come together to experience his mercy, salvation, and peace.
As early as the 4th century, painted representations of the nativity scene appeared as wall decorations in ancient churches. In its present form, the custom of displaying figures depicting the birth of Jesus and the various persons and animals associated with the Christmas story owes its popularity to Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). He created the first Christmas crib scene in Greccio on Christmas Eve 1223. According to Saint Bonaventure’s account. Francis prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.
Francis’ example, Bonaventure suggested, is doubtless sufficient to excite all hearts which are negligent in the faith of Christ. Inspired by Saint Francis and sharing Saint Bonaventure’s confidence, the Church has continued to promote this devotion of the nativity scene. In a way that is both popular and profound, it illustrates and teaches the central mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of God’s becoming one of us in Jesus, who came in poverty, simplicity, and ordinariness.
God of every nation and people, from the very beginning of creation you have made manifest your love. When our need for a Savior was great, you sent your Son to be born of the Virgin Mary. To our lives he brings joy and peace, justice, mercy, and love. Lord, bless all who look upon this manger; may it remind us of the humble birth of Jesus, and raise up our thoughts to him, who is God-with-us and Savior of all, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen. [Prayer for the Blessing of a Nativity Scene]