VATICAN CITY (RNS) — On Thursday (Dec. 5), the Vatican hosted a Christmas tree lighting ceremony ahead of the holidays, but it was the Nativity scene that stole the show.
Almost entirely made from wood, the Nativity scene ticks every box of Pope Francis’ pontificate. The plight of immigrants and refugees is depicted by the statue of a man carrying his belongings as he approaches the manger, which is the picture of poverty and humility, while the pope’s environmental message is underlined by the fact that the creche is entirely plastic-free.
In a private audience with the masons and artisans from Italy’s northern Trento region who created the creche, Pope Francis said the scene “is a genuine way of communicating the gospel, in a world that sometimes seems to be afraid of remembering what Christmas really is and eliminates Christian symbols, only to retain those drawn from a banal, commercial imagination.”
About 25 life-size characters populate this year's scene, which depicts everyday life in the 19th century, from cheese-making to cleaning and cooking.
At its center, Mary and Joseph surround the empty manger that will host a likeness of baby Jesus on Christmas Day.
The Nativity scene is set under an almost 85-foot-tall spruce that is decorated and lit with the Vatican's traditionally spare ornaments. During his meeting with those who donated the tree, Francis expressed his appreciation for the fact that 40 new spruces were planted in its place.
But there is another side to the natural beauty of this year’s Christmas display, as it incorporates fallen trees collected from more than 100,000 acres of land ravaged by a severe storm that hit northern Italy at the end of last year. Bishops attending the ceremony on Thursday said that such events serve as a reminder of the destruction and damage that can occur if humanity does not make a concerted effort to combat climate change.
Pope Francis has been a strong advocate for the defense and care of creation, starting with his 2015 encyclical on the environment, "Laudato Si'."
The first-ever creche was made by the current pope's namesake, St. Francis, a friar in the Middle Ages who lived his life in poverty after rejecting his inheritance. On Sunday (Dec. 1), the pope made a point of visiting the town of Greccio, not far from Rome, where St. Francis – inspired by its rocky and Bethlehem-like landscape – chose to create the very first creche.
St. Francis enlisted real people in his Nativity pageant in 1223, but the tradition lived on to become the creches we are used to seeing today.
“On December 25, friars came to Greccio from various parts, together with people from the farmsteads in the area, who brought flowers and torches to light up that holy night,” the pope wrote in “Admirabile Signum,” an apostolic letter released during his visit to the historic town.
“I wish to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the nativity scene in the days before Christmas, but also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares,” the pope wrote. “It is my hope that this custom will never be lost and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived.”
According to the pope, the creche "shows God’s tender love” by placing the mystery of the divine within an ordinary setting. More than that, he added, the lowly setting of Christ’s birth “summons us to follow him along the path of humility, poverty and self-denial that leads from the manger of Bethlehem to the cross.”
Francis knows well that among Christian families, setting up a creche is a treasured tradition and one that he doesn’t wish to be forgotten.
“The Christmas crèche is part of the precious yet demanding process of passing on the faith,” he wrote. “Beginning in childhood, and at every stage of our lives, it teaches us to contemplate Jesus, to experience God’s love for us, to feel and believe that God is with us and that we are with him, his children, brothers and sisters all, thanks to that Child who is the Son of God and the Son of the Virgin Mary. And to realize that in that knowledge we find true happiness.”