The shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. (Luke 2:15-16)

At the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C., where I live, over the last couple of weeks I have been privileged to help two friends of the Monastery, Roger and Marguerite Sullivan, on a special project. The Sullivans, over a number of years, have collected some 500 display their extensive collection of international nativity scenes. The couple both work in professions which require international travel. Roger brought a crèche back from a trip to Peru and that started the collection.

We’ve spent many hours installing the crèches in display cases in our Monastery’s tour lobby, where visitors come daily to see our church and its replicas of Holy Land shrines. Providing an interesting setting for nearly 150 of the Sullivans’ nativities—some very large, other no bigger than a thimble—has been a creative challenge. I’ve used yards of fabric, shaped Styrofoam with a heated carving tool, stacked plastic boxes, and carefully placed artificial greens and berries around each selection.

In the process, I’ve been forced to reflect on the varied ways people from around the world interpret the Christmas story. Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus are people of the color and culture of each country. The manger is surrounded, not only by oxen and donkey and sheep, but elephant, giraffes, and tigers. I especially was struck by the thoughtful expressions on figures from South America and the detailed costumes of the Asian figures. A modern crèche from the U.S. depicts the Magi on Segways, and Joseph taking a selfie of Jesus and Mary!

The story of God becoming an intimate part of the human story is a mystery which can never be fully exhausted in our meditation. And each Christmas we have the opportunity to take time to revisit it again as we assemble our home manger scenes.

In 2016, a writer-friend, Joe Kay, a journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio, recalled his experience of the setting up the crèche in an article entitled, “The Subversive Manger Scene.” Joe wrote: “The manger is not only a reminder that God is with us, but a challenge to live in a way that brings God more fully and radically into our world. The Christmas story is a subversive story. It erases those lines we draw between ourselves and others, and it turns our values and our ways of thinking upside-down.”

The great Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed in 1944 by the Nazis, wrote in a Christmas sermon, “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.…”

Allow yourself to be touched by the crèche in your home or in your parish church in both its beauty and challenge. May you find your place alongside the shepherds in the nativity scene this Christmas. And, as they did, make known to all what you have experienced about the newborn Child in the manger.

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Gregory Friedman

Friar Greg Friedman, OFM, works at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C.
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