It is a nearly universal practice among Catholics to have a nativity set in our homes and surely in our parishes. Not only does the nativity set remind us of the birth of Christ, it is also a miniature replica of the Church. In the scene we see God (Jesus) and man, saints (Jesus Mary and Joseph) and sinners (all the rest), the rich (the Magi) and the poor, (Mary Joseph, Jesus and the shepherds). We see the learned (the Magi) and the simple (the shepherds). There are Jews and Gentiles since the Magi are Gentiles and the rest are Jews. In this midst of this diverse scene, Jesus is found!
While it may seem “institutional” to ponder the Church on Christmas Day, please realize that it is not. The Church is not an institution, the Church is the Body of Christ; He the Head of the Body, the Church and we, his members (cf Col 1:18; 1 Cor 12:27). Therefore we do well to ponder Christ’s presence in the Nativity setting and what it teaches us about his Body, the Church. Let’s ponder some of the elements:
Divine and Human – Cleary, Christ alone is divine and all the other figures are human or animals. But it is essential, when pondering the Church to remember that the Church is both divine and human. The Church is divine because it is Christ’s body and he is the head of the Body as noted above. It is human because we are members of Christ’s Body, the Church. Let’s be clear, if it wasn’t for the divine indwelling of the Church by Christ’s headship and the presence of his Holy Spirit, the Church would have lasted only twenty minutes, max. But the Church is still here, 2,000 years later proclaiming the same Gospel. The Church is a miracle. There is simply no way to explain it perdurance except that Christ is its head. We can call the Church “Holy” because of Christ, but without him we know sin from the human dimension of the Church would have destroy it centuries ago. Jesus, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity is found at the center of the nativity scene, surrounded by the human beings he loves. The Church is human, to be sure, but the Church is also divine and thus holy and an object of faith.
Saints and Sinners – Jesus of course is sinless and holy. By his grace so is Mary his mother. Joseph is surely a saint even if not sinless from conception. The rest are sinners. Today also in the Church are saints and sinners. Some of the saints are perfected and in heaven. Some of the saintly are still among us here on earth, even if not perfected yet. And, to be sure, most of us are still sinners trying to make it in. This is the Church: many who are holy, and many who are sinners striving for holiness. Sadly there are also among us some who aren’t even trying to be holy, but the Church still holds us close and Christ is still calling. There is an impatience by many that the Church is not very holy and has too many scandals. Indeed, one is too many, but a perfect Church would be an empty Church, at least here on earth. Hospitals work for healing, but must admit the sick. So too the Church which is called to heal, must admit sinners to do so. Christ is found in Bethlehem among both saints and sinners. So too today.
Learned and Simple – In the Nativity Scene we Have Jesus surrounded by the learned and the simple. The wise men were learned, the shepherds were likely simple, unlettered men. Joseph and Mary knew their Scripture and the Jewish Law but were not likely credentialed scholars. In the Church too we have those of great learning, we have unlettered peasants and everyone in between. Saints Augustine and Aquinas, Saints Theresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena are all learned Doctors (teachers) of the faith in a Church which has a great deposit of faith and learning. And yet, many unlettered and simple believers also fill our pews throughout the world and through time. The Church is the patron of the arts and sciences and also the refuge of the poor and simple.
Rich And Poor – The Magi were surely wealthy for they came with gold, frankincense and myrrh. The rest were likely among the working poor. They were not destitute, but their wages permitted little frills. So to the Church through time has included the rich and the poor and always together. A certain Anglican, years ago converted to the Catholic Faith in England. Upon hearing of his plans, his mother fretted: “Oh dear, you will be worshipping with ‘the help.'” Indeed, in a Catholic parish one may just as easily find the banker and the laborer kneeling in the same pew. The Church has benefited from certain wealthy benefactors, but has always been a home to the poor.
Jew and Gentile – In the nativity scene, wth the arrival of the Magi, we see Jews and Gentiles together with Christ. In the Creed we describe the Church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The term “catholic” means universal. People of every nation, race and language are summoned to Christ and the Church has a mission “unto the ends of the earth.” Jesus said to the apostles, Going therefore, teach all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you (Matt 28:19-20). Today we can rightly claim that the Catholic Church is in every land, speaks every language and summons everyone to accept Jesus Christ and live his teachings. If you look at most Catholic parishes in our region you will see what looks like the United Nations. There is an old expression regarding the Church: “Here comes everyone!”
Added to our Nativity scene are also the Angels who gathered that night. And, though invisible to our eyes, they dwell among us in unimaginable numbers. Wherever you go, the angels are everywhere attending to creation and assisting in our human endeavors. Trust God’s assistance and providence! We are not alone, myriads of angels assist and surround us and assist the Church!
Finally, and most humbly, do not neglect to notice what the older translations called the “ox and the ass.” St. Francis of Assisi who gave us the Nativity Set as a devotion placed them there in fulfillment of the Prophet Isaiah who wrote: The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s manger: but Israel has not known me, and my people has not understood (Is 1:3). I suppose the implied question is “Are you as smart as an ox or an ass?” We ought to be smarter, but too often we compare poorly to these otherwise stubborn and stupid animals if we fail to seek the Lord where he is humbly found.
This Christmas and every Christmas, we can learn a lot just by studying the Nativity sets we set up. I like you, strive to go to that humble and challenging place where the Lord is actually found. We may wish to find him in a church or family of our own design. Instead, he is found in a complex place that includes the rich and poor, the learned and simple, Jew and Gentile, saints and sinners, even the likes of you and me.
And he is not ashamed to call us his brethren (see Heb 2:11).