[Michael Kelly and John Stasio will be hosting this year's Advent retreat, Divine Love in Human Flesh – Reclaiming the Season of Advent for Gay Christians – Dec 4-6] One December weekend, when I was about thirteen years old, I made a Christmas crib, or creche, as it is known in some countries.
It was an elaborate affair made of broken fence palings, chicken wire and papier-mâché, all moulded together on a workbench in our backyard. Following the warps in the wire, I shaped a cave-like stable surrounded by bumpy hills and fields, and then populated the scene with a fine set of nativity figures bought on sale from a local shop. My final masterstroke was setting tiny battery-operated torches within the papier-mâché. Then, while playing a musical version of the Christmas story sung by Mario Lanza, Bing Crosby and the Choir of Kings College, I could stage my very own Christmas pageant. Looking back, it seems an unusual holiday project for an Australian lad, but I was proud of it and, frankly, it sure beat playing cricket.
Many years later I spent Christmas Day visiting the churches of Rome with their extravagant Nativity scenes – featuring flying angels and traveling kings – and discovered that my own crib was part of a hallowed Catholic tradition.
The first Christmas Crib was set up by St Francis of Assisi in the Italian village of Greccio around 1223. Francis wanted to show the local peasants just how poor and human the birth of Jesus really was, and so he set up the whole scene in a stable – with real animals and a young couple dressed as Joseph and Mary. The legend says that people miraculously saw Francis cradling a tiny infant as he preached at midnight Mass.
This re-presentation of the Nativity, with concrete images that could be seen and touched as they silently drew the faithful into the ancient story of Jesus’ birth, was an act of spiritual genius. Eight centuries later, in parishes, cities, schools and villages all around the world, millions of people see that story played out – an enchanting story of angels and shepherds, exotic wise men, a wondrous star, a lowly stable and a poor young couple with their little baby. There is something so simple, so right, about actually seeing it all set out before us year by year.
The Incarnation, the mystery of Divine Love becoming human in Jesus, is not some abstract theological concept. It is bodily, ordinary, sweaty, sensual – as physical as childbirth and as earthy as animals. The "sign" which the shepherds were told to find was not some awesome sound and light show – but a little baby lying in a food trough among the animals. You can’t get much more physical than that. This same familiar, embodied grace is at work each Christmas as grandparents take little children up to the manger to "see the Baby Jesus." It’s all very human, homey and physical. Yet within that "seeing" lie depths it takes a lifetime to plumb. The child and the grandparent "see" the same Crib, but there is a journey between them that only the mature, weathered heart can know.
St Paul once famously wrote, "When I was a child I thought like a child and reasoned like a child – but now that I am an adult I have put away childish things."
The first stage of faith is rather like the way a child sees the Crib. For all its wonder and beauty, everything is very literal, historical and specific. When I made my backyard Crib I immersed myself in the Christmas Story with real creativity and devotion, and every aspect had to be presented and venerated. At this stage reflection on one’s faith can be as literal as a child wondering if the sheep licked the baby Jesus, or as profound as a preacher inspiring his people to emulate the courage of the three wise men – but it is always based in historical "certainties."
The next stage of faith, which involves "putting away childish things" can be profoundly disconcerting. In my early twenties I studied the "Infancy Narratives" in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. I discovered that our familiar "Christmas Story" is not found in any one gospel. Rather, while Matthew gave us three wise men, the star and the flight into Egypt, Luke gave us the journey to Bethlehem, the angels and shepherds, and the stable. My beloved Crib was actually a collage made from two somewhat contradictory accounts of Christ’s birth. I then discovered that each of these accounts was itself a collage composed of images from the Hebrew Scriptures and key spiritual themes from the particular Gospel it introduced. Matthew and Luke each offer a kind of "overture" to the major "opera" of their gospels, weaving in ancient, sacred motifs to make their accounts familiar and inspiring to their first century communities.
All this made me appreciate the literary skill of the evangelists, but it was hard to see the Christmas Story emptied out by modern biblical scholarship – however sound and impressive it was. I felt a bit like a boy standing before the scholars and saying "What! No Star?" There was a real sense of loss.
I soon found, however, that the stories shaped by Matthew and Luke carry meaning and beauty as rich as any historical fact. In the three wise men from the East, for example, we see the revelation of Christ offered not just to Israel but to the whole of humanity, and all the nations come rejoicing, just as the scriptures prophesied. In Luke’s story of the angels and shepherds we see Christ’s "good news of great joy!" proclaimed to the most despised members of society. Shepherds were not just poor – they were outcasts, "ritually unclean," since their lifestyle made it impossible for them to observe the rigid religious "purity laws" of the time. Yet it is to them that the angels come. This theme – that in Christ the love of God is revealed most vibrantly among the outcast – is central to Luke’s whole gospel.
And so, with study and reflection, I was gradually led to decode the whole rich tapestry of symbols that make up the Christmas crib. This more mature way of "seeing," this second stage of faith which St Paul described as "becoming an adult," has deepened as the Christmases have passed, and I have found that for all I lost in surrendering my literal, historical "certainties." I have received back a hundredfold in spiritual depth and radical challenge.
In the Crib this depth and challenge is focused most poignantly, of course, in the central figures of Joseph and Mary and the baby. The whole Christmas tableau is just a cute fairy tale unless we truly "see" them, and in this deeper seeing we find layers of meaning that draw us into the very heart of life, if only we are willing.
A young child might see the tender image of the holy baby Jesus sleeping in the hay, the lambs bleating softly to honor him. An adult might see the homeless family seeking asylum, the filth of the stable, the exhausted parents sheltering their new-born in desperate circumstances. A believer might see the staggering claim that it is among the helpless and driven of the earth that Divine Love takes flesh and the face of God is seen. A contemplative, and a wise old woman or man, will sit in silence before this child, before every child, seeing and pondering the mystery, ever ancient ever new, of God becoming human so that humanity might become divine.
In this last stage of faith, beyond both child and adult, we are led back to the Crib with new vision. Here, after all our growing up, our deconstructing and disenchantment, our theologizing and sophistication, our striving for justice and our struggles with living, we return – like the grandparent and the child – to see the Baby Jesus, to smile quietly at that Love whose depth always exceeds our grasp, yet who is given, age after age, into our hands.
And so I will set up a simple crib again this Christmas. On each of twelve nights I will light a candle and sit a while in silence. I will ask for the grace of receiving, as simply as a child, the gift that longs to be given – the gift of joy, the gift of life, the Son of God, love’s pure light.