For 800 years, the Nativity scene has exerted an undisputed fascination on almost everyone. It has long history, almost a thousand years old, yet the Nativity scene never loses its power of attraction. In its history it has known artistic creations and representations of the highest level, the result of the mastery of undisputed artists and craftsmen.
For sure we feel the charm of the Nativity Scene not only when in front of these works of art, but also whilst pausing in front of the simple Nativity scenes that we find made here and there, at Christmas time, in churches, sanctuaries or in our own homes.
What makes the charm of the Nativity scene so irresistible? It is undisputedly the brilliance that generated it!
Preparing for the Solemnity of Christmas 1223, Saint Francis, who had recently returned from the Holy Land, where he had been able to contemplate the Holy Places of the Incarnation of the Word of God and of humanity’s Redemption, felt the desire to have the Eucharist celebrated on an altar that would help him to remember the Grotto of Bethlehem and in particular the Manger in which Mary laid Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. He found such a place, thanks to the help of his friend Giovanni, in Greccio.
Today, we use the term Nativity Scene to define the whole set of elements and characters that recall the Birth of the Child Jesus, but the term Nativity defines the manger itself.
Saint Francis, in his mystical contemplation of the mystery of the humanity of Jesus, grasped the strong and indispensable connection between the Incarnation of the Word, His death on the Cross and the Eucharist. To this end, he wanted to find a way of celebration that would make evident the unity of these mysteries.
The name of the city of Bethlehem, as everyone knows, means “House of bread” in Hebrew, but perhaps not everyone knows that in Arabic it means “House of the flesh”.
In the brilliance of his contemplation and in the intensity of his love, Saint Francis celebrated with simple efficacy a fundamental truth: He who in Bethlehem showed Himself to us in the human flesh of a child, would one day, through the supreme sacrifice of the Cross, become the true Bread of life.
The fragile Infant Jesus laid in the manger is the grain of wheat that will one day be placed in the tomb, so that through the mystery of death it may bear the fruit of true life, eternal life, entrusted and given freely and lovingly to us in the Eucharist.
At Christmas, literally in English, the Mass of Christ, we celebrate the touching tenderness of a Child, who is born in poverty, but in the warmth of the embrace of two parents extraordinary for their humanity, simplicity, and holiness; feared and hated by the powerful but recognized by the shepherds and adored by the Magi of the East.
Tenderness and emotion must not, however, distract us from the drama of what the Nativity scene hides and, at the same time, reveals: it speaks to us of God, who empties Himself by becoming a human being in order to save the world; of a Child who is born to give His life for the salvation of all.
This is the genius of the Nativity scene, which has secretly captured our gaze and our noblest feelings for 800 years: the radicality of the only gift that can truly be defined as Love!
Custody of the Holy Land
Plenary Indulgence on the
occasion of the 800th anniversary of the "Nativity scene at Greccio”
On the occasion of the 800th anniversary of the “Nativity scene at Greccio”, the Apostolic Penitentiary has granted a Plenary Indulgence to all the faithful who visit a church entrusted to Franciscan friars throughout the world, in the time period between 8 December 2023 (Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and 2 February 2024 (Feast of the Presentation in the Temple of Our Lord Jesus Christ).
The Franciscan Family had forwarded their petition to the Holy Father on 17 April 2023, “in order to promote the spiritual renewal of the faithful and increase the life of grace” . By pausing in prayer before the Nativity scenes, the faithful can obtain the Plenary Indulgence under the usual conditions (Sacramental Confession, Eucharistic Communion, and prayer for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff).
In the same way, those who are sick or unable to participate physically can also benefit from the gift of the Plenary Indulgence, by offering their suffering to the Lord or carrying out practices of piety.
Fr. Luke Gregory ofm*