VATICAN CITY (RNS) — As this year’s Vatican Christmas tree and nativity scene were unveiled on Saturday (Dec. 3), Pope Francis reminded the faithful to “stay rooted in Jesus Christ” during the holidays.
“The tree teaches us about our roots, the nativity scene invites us to contemplation. Don’t forget these two human and Christian attitudes,” he said.
The domed nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, sheltering the Holy family, was made in the northern Italian town of Sutrio. The tree is a nearly 100-foot-tall spruce that hails from the town of Rosello, in the mountainous Molise region in central Italy.
A creche from Guatemala was placed inside the Paul VI Hall, where the pope holds his weekly audience.
Normally held in St. Peter’s Square, the Christmas ceremony this year was held inside the hall due to rainy weather.
“The tree, with its lights, is a reminder that Jesus comes to lighten our darkness, our existence, which is often enclosed in the shadow of sin, of fear, of pain,” Francis said during the afternoon audience where official delegations from Sutrio and Rosello and other donors presented their gifts.
“And it inspires another reflection: like trees, men, too, need roots,” the pope said. Only the person “rooted firmly in the ground remains firm, grows, matures, resists the winds that shake him and becomes a reference point for those who watch.”
“This is what the Christmas tree reminds us of: being rooted in Jesus Christ,” he added.
This year’s tree dates back to medieval times and, according to locals, was planted by the Benedictine monks of the Abby of San Giovanni in Verde. Molise is home to some of the most majestic and well-preserved spruces on the Italian peninsula.
Another, larger 200-year-old spruce was originally intended to grace St. Peter’s Square this year, but local environmentalists and forest rangers intervened to save the tree, which is considered a protected species and is located in a nature preserve.
Decorations for Rosello’s tree were handmade by young people from a psychiatric care facility, who worked with elderly residents of a nursing home and local schoolchildren. Their shared effort “was capable of expressing a unique artistry,” said Cardinal Fernando Vergez Alzaga, president of the governorate of the Vatican City State, in his remarks at the ceremony.
The creche in St. Peter’s Square, more than 20 feet high, is made up of 18 life-size wooden statues arranged under a large domed structure, all made without cutting down new trees. As is customary, the scene portrays the daily life and culture of its region, in this case showcasing carpenters and shepherds.
“Simple and familiar, the creche evokes a Christmas that is different from the consumeristic and commercial one,” Francis said.
The pope urged Catholics to appreciate the nativity scene as an opportunity for a “moment of silence” in their frenetic lives. “If we truly seek to celebrate Christmas, we rediscover through the nativity scene the shock and surprise of the smallness, the smallness of God, who makes himself small, who isn’t born in the pomp of appearance but in the poverty of a manger,” he said.
Francis encouraged believers to “make themselves small” in order to meet Christ where he is.
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The pope’s namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, is credited with inventing the custom of building nativity scenes, building the first one in 1223. “The poor man from Assisi loved Christmas because it served as an opportunity to contemplate the king of glory,” said Sister Raffaella Petrini, the secretary general of the Governorate of the Vatican City State and highest ranking woman in the Vatican.
“We also are invited to contemplate the mystery of incarnation,” she added.
Francis concluded his remarks by reminding those in the hall that “God loves us so much that he wished to share our humanity and our lives.
He never leaves us alone, he is at our side in every circumstance, in joy and in sorrow,” he added.
The Christmas tree and nativity scene will remain in the square for faithful from all over the world to see until January 8.