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NOTE: The following letter was published in the December 15, 2016 edition of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.
At Christmas one of the most faith-filled scenes that can be found in homes, churches, and communities throughout the world is the Nativity, a reminder that Christmas should be centered on the birth of Christ and Christ should be the center of our lives.
It was St. Francis of Assisi, for whom our cathedral is named, who is credited with having created the first Nativity scene. He had a deep devotion to the Infant Jesus and on Christmas eve 1223 re-created the first live Nativity scene in a cave outside the town of Greccio, Italy.
What St. Francis wanted to do was to help people see with their bodily eyes what Jesus' original coming was like. He wanted people to realize that the Babe of Bethlehem, the name he called the Infant Jesus, was born in poverty, humility and simplicity. So, with the help of a friend and landowner, Giovanni Velita, St. Francis constructed a manger, filled it with hay, and brought in an ox and donkey from a local farm. Then, he and his Franciscan brothers invited all the townspeople to come to the manger on Christmas eve. That night, they lit candles, sang songs and then had Mass at the manger he had built - and St. Francis, since he was a deacon, sang the Gospel of Christ's birth, and he preached about the birth of the poor king, born in Bethlehem, in a manger, like the one they were standing in. Contrary to our custom and popular belief, St. Francis used no statues of Jesus or Mary or the baby Jesus - nor did he recruit live actors to play those parts; he used no shepherds or angels or wise men, nor kings.
St. Francis' friend, Thomas of Celana, wrote in his journal that Christmas eve before going to bed, "Greccio was transformed into a second Bethlehem, and that night, wonderful night, seemed like the fullest day to both man and beast for the joy they felt at the renewing of the mystery...." Having lived in Rome for almost 20 years, Greccio was a place I enjoyed visiting, and it gratefully maintains that spiritual atmosphere to this day.
Today, 800 years later, the Nativity lives on not only in Grecco but around the world, and it often can be the one thing which touches our hearts most at Christmas. At live Nativity plays and scenes, not only children but adults can be awestruck as they are transported back to see and feel, the birth of the Babe of Bethlehem. In Catholic schools and churches children's Christmas pageants, with their simplicity and innocence, can bring people to tears as it reminds them of the true meaning of Christmas.
In homes everywhere families carry out the tradition of setting up their Nativity with the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, shepherds, ox and donkey. In Rome, on the third Sunday of Advent, there is a beautiful tradition that the children of Rome bring the "bambinelli" (baby Jesus from their Nativity scenes) to St. Peter's Square for the Holy Father to bless them. It is a sea of bambinelli, and a beautiful sight. The Roman children then place the Infant Jesus in the manager in their homes on Christmas eve.
Yes, I'm sure we all have our memories of how the Nativity has had an impact on our life. I have my memories of Greccio and the third Sunday of Advent blessings by the Holy Father, and another one which occurred when I arrived in Rome as a seminarian. One of the first things we did was to go out to visit the Catacombs of Santa Priscilla on the Via Salaria. In there is a fresco from the 200's. It is of the Blessed Mother with the infant Jesus resting His head on her. There is a man standing next to her and he is pointing upward to a star which for the Jewish people is a symbol for the Messiah. The fresco is the earliest representation that we have of the Blessed Mother. It also tells the story of the mystery of the incarnation, of Mary becoming the mother of our Savior, and the fulfillment of the Divine promise for a Messiah.
I remember being struck that the fresco was the oldest image of Our Lady. I thought, too, about the people in the third century who were here in this catacomb painting this picture to commemorate our faith. I remember thinking how blessed we are to celebrate Christmas in freedom, even though in many places throughout the world Christians are not allowed to do so. Indeed, many refugees today are from places where they are persecuted for being Christians.
Pope Francis talked about the symbolism of the Nativity scene just last Friday when he thanked the donors of this year's Vatican Christmas tree which was lit and Nativity scene unveiled on Dec. 9, in St. Peter's Square. He said that the Nativity scene "set up in churches, in homes and in so many public places are an invitation to make room in our life and in society for God, hidden in the face of many persons who are in conditions of hardship, of poverty and of tribulation."
The Holy Father added, "the crib and the tree are a message of hope and of love, and they help to create a favorable Christmas atmosphere to live with faith the mystery of the Birth of the Redeemer, who came on earth with simplicity and meekness." He said we should be attracted to the Nativity scene "with the spirit of children, because there we understand God's goodness and contemplate His mercy."
This Christmas will certainly be another memorable one for me. I am told there is a most beautiful Nativity in our Cathedral and I look forward to praying before the Babe of Bethlehem in our little town of Metuchen, and will be remembering all of you on my first Christmas with you.
It is my prayer that the Christ Child will be the center of your Christmas and life, that each Nativity scene you see will give you a sense of wonder and awe, and remind you that Christ should be the center of your life not only at Christmas but all year long. A Blessed Christmas to you all!
The Most Reverend James F. Checchio, JCD, MBA
Bishop of Metuchen