A NEWSPAPER reported recently that children’s nativity play costumes were selling on eBay for three times their normal price.
With an apparent shortage of outfits for shepherds, kings and angels, not to mention the Holy Family itself, parents have been frantically bidding against each other to make sure their child is the best dressed in Bethlehem.
It’s an interesting phenomenon, not least because, so we’re told, we are becoming an increasingly irreligious society where belief in God is nothing more than delusion. If the Christmas slogan that “Jesus is the reason for the season” makes so little sense to so many, why are we drawn back to the story of the nativity?
For some people, of course, it will be for no other reason than sentiment or nostalgia; it conjures up a nice feeling – and there’s nothing wrong with that. For others though, the drama that unfolds in the stable at Christmas reveals who God is and what it is to be human. In short, it carries real meaning, it makes sense.
For me, an important truth about the nativity comes through the crib scenes originating in Naples. I’ve often written and preached about them. Whereas most cribs focus solely on the essential characters, the Neapolitan versions show life in all its wonderful variety and busy-ness. They are more like landscapes than stables.
In the Church of St Cosmas and St Damian, near the Colosseum in Rome, there’s an 18th century Neapolitan crib on permanent display – it fills half the room! It has whole streets full of houses and shops. There are bakers and shoemakers, taverns and greengrocers. People are getting on with life, buying and selling, cleaning and gossiping.
And then, in the midst of all of this, almost hidden, there is the simplicity of the nativity scene – Mary and Joseph adore the infant Jesus.
You have to take your time to find it, but there amongst the world’s activity a mother and father watch over a new-born child.
It’s the most natural event, but here, almost unnoticed, the Prince of Peace steps out onto the stage of humanity.
Tucked away a Saviour is born; God becomes human and we see him lying humbly in a manger.
The Bible tells us that the birth of Jesus is a sign for us. It’s a sign of God’s faithfulness in sending the Messiah promised by the prophets. It’s a sign that God has sanctified human life by becoming one of us. It’s a sign that we never have anything to fear, that God is with us, now and always.
Here is meaning; here something makes sense. We are neither random nor futile. We are loved by God and worthy that he should give us the precious gift of his Son.
Into the poverty of a stable, and the fragility of a human life, a Saviour is born, wrapped in blankets and laid in a cattle trough. Here is yet more meaning; here something else makes sense. Through his Son God enters the challenges and realities of our lives. God breathes peace into our brokenness. Christ comes alongside us in our pain, our guilt and our fear.
Whatever is happening in our lives, Christ offers reconciliation and courage, joy and hope.
This is why we use the word Gospel to describe the story of God’s coming into the world. It means ‘the good news.’
When you stand and look at a Neapolitan crib it’s not immediately obvious where the nativity is taking place. Christ’s birth is hidden among everything else that’s happening, so much so that some of the characters don’t even seem to notice his arrival. But for those who do, for those who will do, life has new meaning and makes greater sense.
It was because God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son, not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved. On entering our world Jesus was given the name ‘Emmanuel’. It means ‘God is with us’ – whatever we face, wherever life leads us, God is with us.
For so many different reasons the nativity story continues to attract and fascinate us. It invites us to renew our belief that life does have meaning, that there is hope in the love which God shows to us in Christ and his Gospel. In his recent message, ‘The Gospel of Hope’, Pope Francis commented: “Mary was able to turn a stable into a home for Jesus, with poor swaddling clothes and an abundance of love.”
May each of our hearts become a crib where God’s love can be born and may our lives become evermore the place where this love reaches others.
May God bless you and your loved ones during this holy season of Christmas and throughout 2014.
* Monsignor John Wilson is the diocesan administrator for the Diocese of Leeds.