e Child of Mercy
In the treasury of Catholic devotions the Crib is surely among the most popular, and its invention is attributed to one of the best loved of saints. On Christmas Eve in 1223, St Francis of Assisi created a Nativity scene in Greccio, a hill town in central Italy. It was a living praesepio, with a real ox and ass flanking a figure of the Christ Child, in a grotto constructed between the chancel screen and the altar of the church.
The faithful arrived in a torchlight procession for Midnight Mass, at which Francis sang the Gospel and preached. He then held up the figure of the Holy Child for veneration, and it was reported that in Francis’s arms the figure seemed to become a living infant. Straw from the manger was taken home by the congregation, and credited with the healing of sick animals and aiding women in childbirth.
Francis’s Crib provided a safer alternative to making the pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Then, as so often, the Middle East was in turmoil, and Christians making the journey to the Holy Land were liable to be taken hostage or killed. The Crib also served a theological purpose. We think of the Middle Ages as the “Age of Faith”, but it was also a period in which the poison of heresy threatened to contaminate the milk of Catholic doctrine. In their emphasis on the transcendence of Almighty God, there were those who denied the reality of the Incarnation. The Cathars refused to accept that God could allow His divine nature to be sullied by union with human flesh. Such dualism is incompatible with the Catholic faith. In the words of St Gregory of Nazianzus: “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” It is in uniting Himself to our full humanity body and soul that our Saviour redeems the whole human being.
The Crib brings this Mystery of the Incarnation imaginatively to life. The rustic setting of the Nativity highlights the fragility of the Infant Child’s flesh. The rough wooden sides of the manger look as if they might graze the skin of his tiny hands – hands that will one day be nailed to the rough wooden arms of a cross. The protective swaddling bands indicate that the true God has deigned to be born into the chill of a winter night, and even the presence of the shepherds reminds us that in the hills beyond Bethlehem are robbers and
Whatever age we are, we should all come to the Crib like innocent children wolves. The world in which the Word is made flesh contains perils, and God Made Man will experience hunger, pain, rejection and death.
In the current Year of Mercy, the Crib serves as a potent symbol of the unfathomable mercy of Almighty God – a God who dwells in unapproachable light, and yet chooses to come into our world in the poverty of a stable as a baby.
Looking into the eyes of any newborn infant can be unsettling. The innocence and the clarity of expression are so profound that they might seem like a reproach to a lifetime of sin on our own part. No child was ever purer than the child Jesus, and yet he has not come to condemn.
Rather, he comes to restore to us a childlike innocence. When he gazes on us, he sees a potential for greatness which is yet to be realised. In so far as he sees sins, they are for him obstacles to be removed so that we might flourish into the fullness of life for which we were created.
Through uniting himself to our human nature he is able to restore us to innocence and lead us to wholeness in a manner which is tangible. The descent of his flesh into the River Jordan will give to water the power to wash away sins and elevate us to a supernatural level of participation in the life of the Blessed Trinity. The air from his lungs, which in the stable evaporates like steam in the night air, will breathe into his priests the power to forgive sins in the Sacrament of Penance.
And we should never forget that Bethlehem means “House of Bread”, and the manger is a feeding trough: the Holy Child comes to Bethlehem in the flesh so that he may feed us with his body in Holy Communion.
On Christmas Day, the eyes of children sparkle with wonder around the Crib. Whatever age we are, we should all come to the Crib like children, divesting ourselves of the encumbrances of worldly sophistication and clothing ourselves with meekness and poverty in spirit.
Contemplating that scene of the Saviour in the manger in company with the Blessed Virgin and St Joseph, ask the Christ Child to transform our hearts from lowly stables to palaces fit to receive the King of Kings. Fr Julian Large Fr Julian Large Cong. Orat. is Provost of the London Oratory
CATHOLIC HERALD, DECEMBER 25 2015 3