When I was little, I loved the three Advent rituals we did at our house: the Advent calendar with its little cardboard doors that opened one day at a time to reveal tiny pictures and bible verses; the Advent wreath, whose one sole flame grew into a crown of light; and the Christmas crèche. My sisters and I would set the figures in place (Jesus was hidden in the stereo cabinet until Christmas morning), then move the animals and shepherds around every so often so they could stretch their legs. I became known for starting the three magi on their journey before Christmas: from the second floor of the house, down the hall, down the stairs (one per day), into the living room, and to the crèche itself in time for Epiphany. (Amazingly, no one ever stepped on them during their long walk.)
Something in me knew that the magi’s long travels were important to the story, and they couldn’t be rushed or left in the box. Each day when I moved them forward, I would think about what was in store for them when they got to the Holy Family. Such a time of wonder!
At the beginning of Advent 2019, Pope Francis published his Apostolic Letter Admirabile Signum – On the meaning and importance of the nativity scene. (If you haven’t read it – today is a wonderful day to do so. It’s just a few pages.) In this warm and down-to-earth letter, the Pope speaks of the origins, the richness and the power of the crèche to nurture our faith in today’s high-tech, fast-paced world. Part of the letter talks about Epiphany.
As the feast of Epiphany approaches, we place the statues of the Three Kings in the Christmas crèche. Observing the star, those wise men from the East set out for Bethlehem, in order to find Jesus and to offer him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These costly gifts have an allegorical meaning: gold honours Jesus’ kingship, incense his divinity, myrrh his sacred humanity that was to experience death and burial.
As we contemplate this aspect of the nativity scene, we are called to reflect on the responsibility of every Christian to spread the Gospel. Each of us is called to bear glad tidings to all, testifying by our practical works of mercy to the joy of knowing Jesus and his love.
The Magi teach us that people can come to Christ by a very long route.
(Admirabile Signum, #9)
A Christmas crèche may seem old-fashioned these days, but Pope Francis and I agree that it’s well worth having. If your loved ones don’t have a crèche of their own to set up each Advent, think about giving them one. (You can also explore an international collection from the University of Dayton’s Marian Library online.) Whether you’re a grandparent, a parent, an aunt or uncle, or a friend, sharing this nearly 800-year-old tradition with family and friends is a tangible way to remind each other that God, Emmanuel, is with us always. Like the magi, we can adore him and then spread the Good News to others.
–Anne Louise Mahoney, Managing Editor