If you have a little time this season, consider picking up and reading – really reading – Pope Francis’s apostolic letter Admirabile signum, on the meaning and importance of the Nativity scene. It may be the best piece of writing he’s produced in his entire pontificate.
Admittedly, there is a certain workmanlike quality to the essay. He tells you what he’s going to tell you, tells you, and tells you what he told you. Then he wraps it up. But he is on point, all the way through.
“With this letter,” writes Francis, “I wish to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the Nativity scene in the days before Christmas, but also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares.” Thus, Francis places his reflection within the framework of two great themes running through his pontificate: “private” devotion, publicly practised; and confident witness, presenting the faith as a public fact.
The public practice of private devotion is properly called “popular” – and Francis has always promoted popular devotion. Speaking in 2015, for example, of Rome’s Corpus Domini procession, he said: “[W]e have the joy not only to celebrate this mystery [of Our Lord’s body and blood, soul and divinity, substantially present in the Blessed Sacrament], but also to praise it and sing it through the streets of our City.”
In the letter Pope Francis spends a little time rehearsing the origins of the Nativity scene tradition, noting that it was very much a public affair, and involved the highest form of the Church’s official public worship of the Triune God, who took on human flesh for our salvation.
“On 25 December [in 1223], friars came to Greccio from various parts, together with people from the farmsteads in the area, who brought flowers and torches to light up that holy night. When [St] Francis arrived, he found a manger full of hay, an ox and a donkey. All those present experienced a new and indescribable joy in the presence of the Christmas scene. The priest then solemnly celebrated the Eucharist over the manger, showing the bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist. At Greccio there were no statues; the Nativity scene was enacted and experienced by all who were present.”
“This,” says Francis, “is how our tradition began: with everyone gathered in joy around the cave, with no distance between the original event and those sharing in its mystery.” Our tradition.
These days, “living” Nativities are making something of a comeback. Even when they are still and statuary, however, crib scenes are a chance to exercise powers of fancy and invention. “Great imagination and creativity is always shown in employing the most diverse materials to create small masterpieces of beauty,” Francis says. “As children, we learn from our parents and grandparents to carry on this joyful tradition, which encapsulates a wealth of popular piety.
“It is my hope,” he continues, “that this custom will never be lost and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived.”
We can all join him in that hope, and do our part to see that it be so.
Francis’s letter is an essay that doesn’t so much crackle as smoulder: here are hearth fires, banked down. The words and sentences of it offer warmth in the night and a little, constant light by which to see – through gloom and shadow – the reason of a thing that is the sign of our hope.
There is a good deal of the Jesuit spiritual guide in what he writes. The Ignatian charism of the “contemplative-in-action” is palpable throughout. “Setting up the Christmas crèche in our homes helps us to relive the history of what took place in Bethlehem,” Francis writes. It seems obvious, once he says it just like that – and perhaps it is just a statement of the obvious – but then, another great Jesuit didactic maxim is Repetita iuvant (“Repeated things help”).
Pope Francis does not tell his reader what to feel – he notes the joy that always accompanies Nativity celebrations, though joy is rather a mark of the Spirit – but recalls what the exercise does for us. Even when our preparations are rushed, even when there is fuss and bustle and consternation, even when we get there late and hardly at all, yet we are there. “When, at Christmas, we place the statue of the Infant Jesus in the manger, the Nativity scene suddenly comes alive,” he writes, “God appears as a child, for us to take into our arms.
“Beneath weakness and frailty, he conceals his power that creates and transforms all things,” the Pope continues. God conceals his power beneath weakness and frailty, but his mode of concealment reveals his inmost self: self-subsistent charity disclosed in a newborn Child, placed in a trough, in makeshift quarters, in a tiny village on the far side of the world.
“It seems impossible, yet it is true,” Pope Francis says, “in Jesus, God was a child, and in this way he wished to reveal the greatness of his love: by smiling and opening his arms to all.”