Nativity scenes remind us of the word made flesh

When asked for their childhood memories of Advent, Catholic adults inevitably will mention two things that would never change from year to year: the star or angel that topped their Christmas tree; and the family Nativity set.

On the Nativity front, I recall watching as my mother reverently unwrapped our trio of Italian-crafted, foot-tall plaster figurines of the Holy Family. Chipped over the years by six rambunctious children, these sculpted renditions of Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child had a matte patina and were dressed in faded tones of blue, green and red.

The carved set was a Renaissance take on a Middle Eastern event, and I adored it.

At my childhood parish of St. Leo the Great, the grotto next to the church housed a much taller Nativity grouping boasting the same European style, but which also included kings, shepherds, animals and real hay. The grotto itself, of course, resembled a stable, which gave viewers the added thrill of feeling as though they were peering into a cave.

When I was growing up, there was an unwritten but well-known rule about displaying one’s Nativity scene: The figure representing the Christ Child was to be put out no earlier than Christmas Eve. Signaling Jesus’ birth any sooner would miss the point of the feast, Mom said.

[ngg_images source=”galleries” container_ids=”3″ display_type=”photocrati-nextgen_basic_thumbnails” override_thumbnail_settings=”0″ thumbnail_width=”240″ thumbnail_height=”160″ thumbnail_crop=”1″ images_per_page=”20″ number_of_columns=”0″ ajax_pagination=”0″ show_all_in_lightbox=”0″ use_imagebrowser_effect=”0″ show_slideshow_link=”1″ slideshow_link_text=”[Show slideshow]” order_by=”sortorder” order_direction=”ASC” returns=”included” maximum_entity_count=”500″]I have kept this custom alive in my own little family. Our much smaller Nativity set of transparent glass figurines is always placed at eye level on our living room mantle. And whoever designed our set must have known about the timing issue related to the placement of Baby Jesus; the piece representing the Babe of Bethlehem can be conveniently flipped upside down to show an empty crib and right-side up to reveal a slumbering infant.

Earlier this month, the Christ Child was intentionally set out a couple of weeks prematurely when 114 Nativity scenes were put on display at St. Alphonsus Church, a 160-year-old space that is maintained as an art and cultural center by the Friends of St. Alphonsus. Made out of media as varied as glass, metal, ceramic, fabric and wood, Nativities sprawled across planks set on pews, lined window sills and occupied the nooks and crannies of column bases.

You suddenly realized that depictions of the stable scene at Bethlehem were as diverse as the artists who created them (some of them are pictured in this article).

Yet what really caught my eye at St. Alphonsus was a “Nativity” that wasn’t even part of the official exhibit: The Nativity scene captured in one of the church’s stained glass windows, one of a series of panels that begins with the Annunciation and goes on to chronicle other pivotal moments in the lives of Mary and Jesus.

I noticed that unlike the church’s other stained-glass windows, the one depicting Jesus’ birth was noticeably darker. Wondering about this, I asked a church tour guide: Was the exterior of this window caked in soot? Or was there an addition behind this particular window that was blocking out the sunlight?
The guide’s answer was “no” on both counts; he said the window was dark because it was a rare stained-glass study of Jesus being born at night!

The Star of Bethlehem shatters an otherwise inky sky at top, while down below, the Prince of Peace emits a light that is nearly blinding. The Blessed Mother is bathed in the bulk of her Son’s luminosity, followed by Joseph and the rest of the awestruck onlookers.

May this image of Christ breaking through the darkness of a broken, shivering world remind us of the flesh-and-bone savior who can never be entirely captured in ceramic, glass or wood.

Let us thank him for his gift of entering into our humanity by reflecting his light wherever we are!

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