Why do we have Nativity scenes?


Because they remind us why we celebrate Christmas


Q. Your November column on Advent got me thinking of how important my family’s Nativity scene is to me, and also the one used in my parish church for decades. I think they help us remember what is at the heart of Christmas. Do you agree?

A. The Christmas crèche, or Nativity scene, remains the best reminder of the infinite gift of love that God gave us at Christmas. Perhaps the Nativity scene in your home has been in place for weeks or will take shape soon. St. John’s Abbey has a large collection of Nativity scenes, from many countries, in many styles.

kwateranativityI have a much smaller collection of Nativity scenes: a Mexican ceramic one with tiny figures (I wish this set had more of them for me to arrange); a Polish wooden one with the heads of the ox and donkey peeking over their stall that my father Joseph bought for me; and a fabric one from Guatemala that I bought for my mother Josephine when she lived at Assumption Home in Cold Spring (Mary and Joseph are dressed in brightly-colored clothes, as befits the festive occasion).

I display these crèches in alternate years in my suite in St. Patrick Hall at St. John’s. My few Nativity scenes will join the many at St. John’s when I’m gone. But my collection and I are in no hurry for that.

Where the mystery starts

It is kneeling or standing before such visual representations of the birth of Jesus that we often get our first inklings of the Christmas mystery.

I retain a photo of myself as a youngster standing before my family’s crèche; my hands folded reverently, my face aglow with wonder before the arrangement of worn plaster figures from at least two different sets. My family didn’t have one of those elegant, upscale stables that I see in department stores and at craft sales.

At some point in my childhood my parents let me begin replacing the worn plaster figures with new ones from Woolworth’s, the dime store on West Broadway in north Minneapolis.

Using my hard-earned allowance money and other sources of juvenile income, I would buy one or two figures at a time: first, essential figures like Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus; later, less essential but still desirable figures like the shepherd’s dog. It took a while, but eventually everyone and everything was there.

Essential vs. nonessential

To arrange the various figures in the Nativity scene does not require lots of practice or expertise; children become quite skillful at it very quickly.

This presupposes, of course, that all the figures are there to begin with.

We might easily do without one of the sheep (maybe it got lost or turned into mutton since last Christmas); and we might not be too upset if one of the multiple shepherds should meet with a tragic accident and be unable to make his yearly visit to the crib.

But we certainly couldn’t imagine a Nativity scene without the centerpiece, the guest of honor, the birthday boy himself: the Baby Jesus in the manger.

A place in our hearts

No, we couldn’t imagine a Nativity scene without the Baby Jesus, and rightly so. But how sad it is if we add Jesus to the Nativity scene in our homes at Christmas and then fail to place him at the center of our lives all year long.

We who place the Christ Child in his crib at Christmas must place him at the center of our lives every day. If we don’t, we fail to honor Christ the Lord present in ourselves and in other people, his sisters and brothers.

To place him at the center of our lives is to live with his presence in our hearts.

To place Jesus Christ at the center of our lives is to embrace the grace and truth he brought us in his living and dying and rising as one of us.

To place Jesus Christ at the center of our lives is to hear, really hear, God speaking to us in his beloved Son, speaking a message of good news, offering us salvation and peace both in this life and in eternal life.

To place Jesus Christ at the center of our lives is to welcome God’s everlasting light and life in him, so that we can live as the children of God. To place Jesus Christ at the center of our lives is to find ourselves at the center of God’s love, at Christmas and forever.

May you enjoy a most blessed and merry Christmas, and may you know throughout the Christmas season the love of God present in your lives.

Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at mkwatera@csbsju.edu or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015. Father Michael enjoys giving workshops and presentations on liturgical topics to parish groups. Reach him at the email or postal addresses listed here.