The Christmas Crib - Fourth Sunday of Advent

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The celebration of Christmas still holds a special place in our culture, despite increasing numbers of people claiming that they have no faith. Of course, their focus is not upon celebrating the birth of Christ, but more it is a time for family celebrations. Houses will be decked with lights and festive displays; people will exchange gifts and cards; on Christmas day families will gather for a special meal together; and there will be many end of year gatherings of work colleagues, members of organisations and wider circles of friends.

There is a spirit of joy and peace in the air. Christmas is meant to be a happy time. In our culture Christmas celebrates the virtues of family, of friends, of goodwill. People are also conscious of giving to those in need. The Christian heritage lingers on.

Christmas is in fact the Christian commemoration of the birth of Christ, the Son of God has become man. While many choose to reject Christianity, they still enjoy the celebration of the spirit of Christmas.

The celebration of Christmas remains popular because there is something deeply human and appealing about it. And this is captured in no better way than in the depiction of the holy family in the stable of Bethlehem.

The Christmas crib, with Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus, never ceases to attract people. This year, for the sixth time, we held “Light a Candle for Christmas” in the Elizabeth Street Mall. The crib is the central focus and choirs sing well-known Christmas Carols. People stop to listen and gaze upon the crib. Mothers bring their young children forward and as the child places the candle you can see the mother explaining the meaning of the scene before them.

The crib is a simple and yet attractive way in which the story of the birth of Christ is expressed and communicated.
Indeed, it was not just children who came forward to light a candle. Many people of all ages felt very comfortable in approaching the crib. In the nativity scene the profound mystery of the Incarnation is expressed to both the young and the old, the believer and those who do not, with a natural human beauty which is accessible to all.

The testimony of Scripture comes to life in a way that all people can embrace. This deeply human scene of a young couple without a place to stay, opens people to the spiritual world and to the great act of God who chose to embrace the human condition in such a manner. The humble circumstances, the vulnerability of this young poor couple, touch the human heart.

The scene of the birth of Christ evokes not only the wonder of the birth of a child, always a source of joy; it also speaks of central aspects of the Christian spirit.  The nativity scene expresses some of the central Christian virtues, like poverty of spirit, humility, simplicity, joy and, of course, love. Above all it reveals the merciful heart of God towards humanity.

In the midst of the busyness and crass materialism of much of our society’s engagement with the Christmas season, the crib enables us to recall “the reason for the season”. It draws us to the truth of what we are celebrating.

Pope Francis has recently issued an Apostolic Letter on the “Meaning and Importance of the Nativity Scene”. He urges the Christian people to continue the “beautiful family tradition of preparing the nativity scene in the days before Christmas”.

He reminds us that the practice of assembling a crib comes from what St Francis did in the year 1223 in the little village of Greccio. Coming to the village to take part in the midnight Mass St Francis asked a local man, John – Giovanni - to prepare a stable from wood and place straw in it and place it in front of the altar. On Christmas night when the people came for the Mass they were moved by this simple depiction of the birth of their Saviour and as Thomas of Celano, St Francis’ biographer commented, “everyone went home with joy”.

The Pope believes that displaying Nativity scenes provides a valuable opportunity “to spread the Gospel”. Speaking in particular to parents and grandparents the Pope reminds them of the “precious yet demanding process of handing on the faith” and encourages the Christian people to keep alive the practice of having a nativity scene in every Christian home.

Today at this Mass we will bless the crib situated over at the side altar in the cathedral. We will also bless any other cribs that have been brought to this Mass. May this blessing remind us that the tradition of erecting a Christmas crib is one of the most important means to profess our appreciation of what we celebrate at Christmas. May every family give pride of place to the Christmas crib as Pope Francis has asked.