The Christmas Creche
December 11, 2007
View the Image Slideshow for The Christmas Creche (Opens a new window).
If Advent is characterized by a meditation on Christ’s coming in the past, a preparation of Christ’s coming in the present; and the anticipation of Christ’s coming in the future, then Christmas celebrates God's Incarnation in this world: yesterday, today and tomorrow. The Word Christmas, derived from "Cristes Maesse," really means the "Celebration of Christ" or "Christ’s feast." This implies that at Christmas we celebrate the fullness of the mystery of Christ and not just his birth. The Incarnation cycle then is a time during which we are invited to embody what it means to be pregnant with the love of God and to bear the promise of Salvation to one another.
The Orthodox image of the Theotokos, the God-Bearer, the Mother of God, is a perfect image to contemplate during Advent. As we ponder the mystery of the Virgin bearing the divine Child, we are called to mystically share in that privilege and be Theotokoi ourselves, God-bearers, Christ-bearers to one another. Christmas offers us the créche or nativity set or manger, which invites us into the mystery of the incarnation of God into every place and every segment of this world.
Historical Roots and Theological Interpretation of the Manger
Although Saint Francis ( September 26 , 1181 – October 3 , 1226 ) is often credited with the popularization of the manger, the custom of erecting some form of a manger far predates this saint. The Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome, for instance, already had a chapel of the crib by the fifth century with a representation of the scene of Jesus’ birth as described in the Gospels and visualized by artists. The custom of re-enacting the birth of Jesus with live mangers has its origin in 11th century Christmas plays.
Saint Francis popularized this custom and gave it a new spiritual interpretation. To see the child in the crib allowed him to profoundly meditate on the mystery of God becoming human. The manger allowed Francis to realize the awesome mystery that in Jesus, God was able to see with human eyes, to hear with human ears, to love and to feel the pain of the human heart, as well as bodily pain. Of course, Francis never saw the manger outside of the context of the cross. The baby in the crib and the suffering servant on the cross were always present in Francis’ way of thinking. Because of him, they became very important to the spirituality of the people across Europe: God became truly human, suffered, and died for the salvation of the world.
After the death of Francis, crib-making became popular throughout Europe and eventually throughout the world. Christmas scenes, mangers, créches experienced an incarnation in their own right as they came to bare the cultural and ethnic marks of many different peoples. Thus, they came to truly express the universality of the Incarnation.
The Appearance of the Manger
When introducing a manger into a worship setting, it is important to remember that any element of the liturgical environment should serve worship and not become an occasion to showcase environment. Thus, if you decide to erect a manger in your church, it should be done in such a way that it does not obstruct, obscure, or detract from worship. Find a location that is suitable for personal visitation and meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation, away from the central worship area. This can either be inside or outside, depending on the climate.
Although Saint Francis may have preferred live animals and life-size images, this is not always practical. Guidelines for selecting a crèche would be location, scale, and most importantly the cultural and ethnic reality of the local and universal church. A 19th century French church in Canada would undoubtedly have looked for a French créche. Today, as our individual churches more and more reflect the church universal, it might be wise to invest in a manger that breaks old barriers and opens new insights into the universality of the incarnation. Today, the same French Canadian church my very well have a traditional Masai créche, a Vietnamese crèche, or a totally abstract crèche. This very church may even have all of them and many more. Only one of them would be designated for ritual use, the other may be set up throughout the church campus during the Christmas season.
The Ritual Use of the Manger
Historical documents and some lingering practices reveal a high level of creativity when it comes to ritual use of the manger. The most memorable use I found in an unnamed Cathedral in Italy where the Christ Child “lands” in the crib, sliding on a wire “from on high” during the singing of an Christmas carol at the Midnight Mass. Now, if your church has done this for the past 450 years, I would suggest you keep the tradition. All other communities should reach for a less complex and theatrical ritual use of the manger. The most intimate ritual use I found was in a convent in Germany. Every time a nun passed by the manger, she gave the crib a soft push so it started to rock gently with the baby Jesus in it. Like the silent lighting of a candle, this intimate gesture functioned as a quiet prayer, repeated over and over again. Although this may not be practical in our churches, it still is something to remember.
The Book of Blessings: Approved for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and Confirmed by the Apostolic See (Roman Ritual) suggests a procession to the manger in the context of one of the Christmas services. There, a prayer and a blessing might be spoken. The manger then should be available during the entirety of the Christmas season for visitation and meditation … and maybe even for a gentle push of the crib.
EnVisionChurch invites you to view our online exhibit of various créches (see slide show above). Enjoy!
Johan van Parys is the Director of Liturgy and the Sacred Arts at the Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis, Minnesota and the Artistic Director of EnVisionChurch.