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Most preachers have a “Christmas is getting too commercial” sermon in their repertoire. I used mine last year, commenting that no pastor would be able to responsibly spend on a church’s Christmas decorations what a New York department store did on its windows. I also noted that the professional ad men on Madison Avenue had so targeted our children that they could tell us in July what we would be buying in December.
After the Mass I was informed by several parishioners that department stores* are on the decline, and even the ones that still exist don’t do that much with windows anymore. This didn’t surprise me. The last time I tried to buy something in a department store, I felt that I was imposing on the sales staff. What did surprise me was that we now have ad women, the agencies are not on Madison Avenue* and we are really being targeted by algorithms. I was asked if I ever noticed that the advertisements on my screens are for things I might actually want, and that this might not be by accident. Frankly, I thought it was magic.
*(Note for those under fifty: a “department store” is a large store stocking many varieties of goods in different departments and “Madison Avenue” as a term refers specifically to the agencies and methodology of advertising.)
Now my basic point was that there are two Christmases. The Christmas that is our national day of consumption and the Christmas that is the celebration of the birthday of Jesus. One is transactional, the other relational. we cannot use the means of the former to increase the latter. If anything, I think the observations of our parishioners reinforced this. Also, I have gotten a very powerful ally.
On the first day of Advent, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic letter “On the meaning and importance of the Nativity Scene”. You may find a link to the full version as well as selections from it on our website here and in our weekly email. It can be read in about 10 minutes and is a wonderful meditation on the Christmas mystery, but also, as usual with Pope Francis, contains practical advice.
Of all the overtly religious Christmas customs, erecting a crèche in our homes has been the last to go. Pope Francis suggests that the first reason is that it reveals God’s tender love. We find a powerless baby, defenseless and born in the meanest circumstances. Attempts to make the stable a palace was tried in the Post-Reformation and looked ludicrous. We feel in our bones that nothing indicates God’s love as the infant Jesus in the manger. Theologically, we know that Jesus becoming a human being was so great a change that it does not make much difference if he was king or beggar. Yet, seeing the Lord and Creator of all in swaddling clothes in a barn effectively communicates what Francis calls “the feel and touch of poverty which God’s Son took on himself in the Incarnation”.
But there is another dimension which also acknowledges “feel” and “touch”. The crèche is something we build or assemble ourselves. Often, it is handed down from generation to generation. My childhood crèche is now over 80 years old. I gave it to my niece to set up with her nephews. Especially when children are young, they ask great questions, such as: “Where are the walls? And did the animals keep Jesus awake at night?”. My favorite suggestion was from a girl who wanted to put in a fireplace so that Jesus would not catch a cold. We can talk all we want about the meaning of the Incarnation, but setting up the Nativity scene brings it home much more powerfully than any words I have ever used.
Francis, as we should never forget, is a Jesuit, and Jesuit prayer is based on the imagination. A Jesuit will look at a scene from the Gospel for several days. He might ask first ,what would he smell if he were there? Then what would he have heard? Perhaps eventually who was there or what could be read on Jesus’ face? The Pope is therefore very concerned about setting the scene for the Nativity. I will use just two examples:
First, what about the landscape? He notes that many Nativities include ruins of ancient houses or buildings which in some cases replaces the stable. Emphasizing this Francis believes “tells us that Jesus is newness in the midst of an aging world, that he has come to heal and rebuild, to restore the world and our lives to their original splendor”.
When I was assigned to St. Saviour’s in Park Slope, some very creative people made a backdrop of brownstones and other urban buildings, and replaced the stable with a utility shed. It changed the way I looked at the Nativity. God become human in a specific time and place, and if changing the background brings this to the fore then some work with cardboard and an X-Acto knife* might be in order.
*(Note for those under 50: The X-Acto knife is a pen-size tool composed of an aluminum handle with a replaceable, short, pointed, very sharp blade that can be used for precision cutting and detailed carving.)
There is also the question of adding figures to the crèche itself to make it more personal. I am a great fan of the British Sci-Fi series Doctor Who, and I have been given figures from it to put around the crèche. The Pope particularly suggests putting figures of beggars and the homeless in the actual stable with the Holy Family. Another suggestion, which we see in the great Christmas crèche under the tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is placing people doing their normal daily activities. I love taking children to the Met, walking around the tree with them and asking: “What would you add?” Children on bicycles and skateboards are the most frequently suggested.
We here at St. Charles have the custom of blessing the Jesus figures of our Nativity scenes the Sunday before Christmas. I have never done this before, but it seems so obvious that I don’t know why it is not more common. A crèche at home is itself a blessing, a reminder of God’s love in the very middle of our lives. When we have them blessed together in Church, we are acknowledging that we receive this blessing by being a member of a community. It comes from our relationship with Jesus found in His Church. However powerful the psychological profiling of advertising professionals that can make us want something or however accurate the algorithms which can keep their images on our screens and in our faces for months, they cannot substitute for the warmth and the light of Jesus appearing to us first as a helpless child.
To end with the words of Pope Francis, “Let us 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”.