Merry Christmas, everybody! Every Christmas Eve I get to do one of the most difficult and yet enjoyable things I do all year. I get to assemble the parish creche, and so I have to get a whole bunch of children to walk down the side aisle and actually gather around the creche – that’s the first challenge. Then I have to get them to give me the figures, and sometimes convincing a three-year-old to give back a toy minutes after giving it to them on Christmas can get sticky. Then I have to place the figures in the creche so that it looks nice, all in the space of a couple verses of Once in Royal David’s City.
I’ll admit here that I have never once done this correctly. One year, I couldn’t remember where the angel went, and so Olivia Brovak had to help me – I think she was like seven at the time. At some point during the service every year, the creche is miraculously rearranged to how it’s supposed to look; I caught Mrs. Trout doing just that one year.
Depicting our Lord’s nativity is a popular custom at Christmas. We have our crèche; the Baptists across the street have a big one out front – the wise men are already there – and many people have them in their homes as a focus for devotion during the season. As Fr. Warren at the Advent wrote, “This is an old custom, but not an ancient one, and unlike most customs whose origins are mysterious and forgotten, we know exactly when, where, and by whom the crèche at Christmas was begun. It was in the year 1223 on Christmas Eve, of course, in the Italian town of Greccio, by St Francis, and there is even an account of this by an eyewitness.
“Francis had the representation of the Savior’s birth set up next to an altar in the town square for the celebration of the Midnight Mass. He set up a real manger, and there was lots of hay, a live ox and a live ass, and many sheep. Francis, who was a Deacon in the Church, as well as a Friar, sang the Gospel of the Mass, which was the story of the birth of Jesus, as he stood by the crèche. He explained what he was doing. These were his words:
I want to enact the memory of the Infant who was born in Bethlehem, and how he was deprived of all the comforts babies enjoy; how he was bedded in the manger on hay, between an ass and an ox. For once I want to see all this with my own eyes.
“For once I want to see all this with my own eyes. Francis’ purpose – for himself and for the people of Greccio – was to make the account of Jesus’ birth as real and as earthy as possible. His point was that the story of Christmas is the record of something which happened in the real world. God the Son became man, became human in the same world you and I know and He lived a life like your life and my life. This is not a fable. This is not a myth. This is a fact in time and in space. This is something which happened… God born in human life. God incarnate in the world which is your world and my world.”
For once I want to see all this with my own eyes. The birth of our Lord inspires such sentiments, and a creche, however wonderful, doesn’t really fulfill the wish. They can be entertaining, surely: remember last year when Old First Reformed Church in Philly had a live nativity scene, and Stormy the cow ran away not once, but twice? They finally caught up to her in a parking garage and brought her back, but she lost her job to another cow named Ginger, who was presumably less prone to escape.
For once I want to see all this with my own eyes. I want to be there when humankind first locked eyes with God, and found those eyes to be fill with tears, vulnerable and longing for His mother. For that matter, I want to see Jesus when He was twelve and arguing with the priests in the Temple, and I want to see Him working with Joseph and calling His disciples and healing the sick and breaking the bread and yes, even carrying His cross to Calvary. I want to see Him burst forth from His tomb and eat fish on the beach and ascend into Heaven. I want to see these things with my own eyes, and I’m sure you do too.
So how do we do that? By opening our eyes and our hearts to what Jesus is doing, what He’s doing at this moment in you and all around you. We might be only able to imagine the events of Jesus’ earthly life, but we can take part in the life Jesus gives us right now. We can see Him; we can see Him through His redeeming love; we can see Him when we love our neighbor and see to their needs; when we welcome the stranger and visit the sick, when we care for the orphan and the widow, when we receive Him in His Body and Blood. And we shall see Him not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing by, but in Heaven, set at God’s right hand on high, when you, His children, are crowned like the stars. Take Jesus into your heart this Christmas and look for Him in all places, and I promise, you will see all this with your own eyes.
Merry Christmas everybody.