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A gift to all: Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter on the Nativity Scene

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 05, 2019

Please bear with me for just a moment. In a season of expectant wonder, it is a little sad that I must open this introduction to Pope Francis’ latest Apostolic Letter with something of a lament. Increasing numbers of readers are telling me that nobody any longer wishes to hear from Pope Francis. I sympathize with the frustration created by this pope’s rather obvious deficiencies, but I also know it is wrong to forget that God set Francis over us for His own good reasons. It is precisely in the midst of our likes and dislikes, and even our moral judgments in various situations, that we are called to take every pontificate seriously, and to discern and apply what we can use to grow in faith and closeness to Christ.

The spiritual judgment required to discern good and evil is important to each of us, and must be continuously exercised for our own good, but that is quite different from the kind of personal judgment that we are all too prone to pass on others, the kind of judgment that makes us close our ears, often merely to protect our “comfort zone”, and often leading to harsh condemnations. Christ warned us repeatedly against these sorts of personal judgments; reread, for example, Mt 7:1-5 and Lk 6:37-42. It is just this sort of judgment which leads us to reject out of hand the witness of others, especially our pastors.

St. Paul had it right when he wrote in his Letter to the Romans, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand” (Rom 14:4), and again, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). If this is true, why do we not look for ways to grow in every situation, rather than for ways to shield ourselves behind personal denunciations? St. Paul says further in the same letter that when we make judgments of this type, we are really condemning ourselves (Rom 2:1).

Here endeth the first part, my lament.

A gift of light

I have a good hope that a great many of my readers are still open to receiving a gift from the Pope, and in fact he has given us a precious gift, appropriate to the season of Advent, in his latest Apostolic Letter On the meaning and the importance of the Nativity Scene. This is exactly the sort of simple human reflection at which Francis excels. He does not have the knack of his two predecessors for logical precision and clear analysis, but he does have a very human touch, and that touch is frequently evident in his observations on pastoral care and, in particular, on the life of Christ. We ought to recall affectionately that Francis is not an academic; he treasures the smell of the sheep.

Hence the lovely simplicity of his reflection “on the meaning and importance of the Nativity Scene”. The Latin title, of which I believe we can all get the gist, is Admirabile Signum (a good translation would be “wondrous sign”). “The nativity scene”, Francis affirms, “is like a living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture.” He continues:

As we contemplate the Christmas story, we are invited to set out on a spiritual journey, drawn by the humility of the God who became man in order to encounter every man and woman. We come to realize that so great is his love for us that he became one of us, so that we in turn might become one with him. [1]

It is for this reason that the Pope wishes to encourage the family tradition of setting up a nativity scene and “also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares.” In this simple wish, the Pope acknowledges that he has ignored the memo from our increasingly secular culture and its leaders. Instead, he begins with St. Augustine’s observation about the birth of Christ: “Laid in a manger, he became our food” (2). He then recounts how St. Francis, on his way home after having his order’s rule approved by Pope Honorius III in Rome, asked for help in recreating the scene of Our Lord’s birth, the better to grasp the wonder of the Incarnate God.

As we know, Francis used this simple sign to carry out “a great work of evangelization” which ought to still be our priority today:

In a particular way, from the time of its Franciscan origins, the nativity scene has invited us to ‘feel’ and ‘touch’ the poverty that God’s Son took upon himself in the Incarnation. Implicitly, it summons us to follow him along the path of humility, poverty and self-denial that leads from the manger of Bethlehem to the cross. It asks us to meet him and serve him by showing mercy to those of our brothers and sisters in greatest need. [3]

In the course of the next six brief numbered sections, the Pope offers a series of insights into the scene:

  • The night calls to mind our own darkness and need for light, and the frequently-pictured caves and ruins evoke our own fallen humanity. (4)
  • The surrounding countryside and the angels suggest the eager participation of all of Creation in God’s marvelous plan. (5)
  • The many human figures, the human participants, are representatives of those who are redeemed. (6)
  • Mary, a figure of great mystery, shows forth her son, while Joseph stands by as a guardian obedient to the plans of the Father. (7)
  • The infant Jesus, when added to the scene, expresses the unfathomable love of the God who empties himself for us. (8)
  • The Magi, or three kings, suggest our own responsibility, our response to this Wonder of wonders. (9)

A generational trust

The nativity scene, Pope Francis affirms, makes us “all the more conscious of the previous gift received from those who passed on the faith to us” and “of our duty to share this same experience with our children and grandchildren” (10). He concludes:

Like Saint Francis, may we open our hearts to this simple grace, so that from our wonderment a humble prayer may arise: a prayer of thanksgiving to God, who wished to share with us his all, and thus never to leave us alone. [10]

This is a simple meditation from a pope who would like us all to receive the gift of simplicity, like children, full of wonder. Perhaps we, who are all too aware that some of the answers we would like to have are missing, can also learn that it is the greatest of gifts to be able to rely unreservedly on God. In this small matter, then, we should do as the Pope asks. We should read his Apostolic Letter, perhaps even out loud. We should re-emphasize the nativity scene in our celebration of Advent and Christmas this year and every year. We should seek to benefit anew from the gifts it calls to mind, and to more generously pass them on.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wenner1687 - Dec. 07, 2019 12:25 PM ET USA

    Why do you presume we are condemning Pope Francis personally when we decry his scandalously ambiguous blurring of Church Dogma? Shame on you. We have a duty to resist and reject bad teaching, (as St Paul resisted St Peter to his face) and that is what we are doing. I personally pray for the Pope every day as he so badly needs it. But I ignore him (personally) as much as possible, as he is an occasion of sin for me--the sin of unrighteous anger which his words & actions provoke.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 06, 2019 4:05 AM ET USA

    Regarding your lament, I think the problem is twofold: (1) failure (either willed or unwilled) of the reporting media to distinguish Francis' personal opinions from his articulations as supreme pastor of the Catholic Church, (2) Francis' own tendency toward imprecision and lack of qualification of statements that can convey diverse meanings. While we can find difficulty in understanding his verbal statements, his actions are often crystal clear, regardless of what we may perceive as his intent.