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It is St Francis of Assisi in the early thirteenth century who is credited with creating the first nativity scene – or presepe in Italian – complete with live animals and people.
He used it as a teaching aid in his sermons to emphasise the very humble circumstances of Jesus’s birth. Since then the nativity scene has become a staple ingredient of Christmas celebrations throughout the world – not least in churches, whose crib scenes are often dedicated at one of the Christmas services (as the cathedral’s wonderful Wakefield Nativity by Austin Wright will be at our Midnight Mass).
The tradition of the presepe is especially rich in Naples. In the city’s Via San Gregorio Armeno, craftsmen and craftswomen in dozens of ‘nativity workshops’ create wonderful crib scenes that attract the attention of hundreds of thousands of tourists throughout the year. What is especially striking about these crib scenes is that they frequently include characters whom you would never find in the lists supplied by St Luke or St Matthew in their accounts of the birth of Jesus. Here you might see Madonna, the singer rather than the mother of Jesus, complete with her microphone and questionable dress sense; there you might glimpse the footballer Diego Maradona complete with the ‘hand of God; there are bakers loading pizza ovens, or (self-referentially) merchants selling miniature crib scenes. All human life is here.
Although it might at first sight seem odd, not to say anachronistic, to see contemporary figures in a crib scene, their presence (perhaps quite unintentionally) makes an important theological point: Jesus’s birth certainly took place in a particular time and place over two thousand years ago, but Christians understand that birth to be of universal and timeless significance. After all, in one of our best-loved Christmas hymns, O Little Town of Bethlehem, we ask the holy child to be ‘born in us today’. Jesus is for life, we might say, not just for Christmas.
My best wishes for a happy, peaceful and blessed Christmas.
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