By DR. BERNARDO M. VILLEGAS
I stand to be corrected. But I believe we still hold the record for starting Christmas the earliest date possible, i.e., the first day of September when we already begin to display Christmas symbols and decorations and sing Christmas carols. A recent event in my university, the University of Asia and the Pacific, reminded me that we may also hold another record related to Christmas. Over the last two decades or more, when the university has been holding a contest on which unit of the institution could craft the best-looking Belen or Christmas creche, this year has seen the greatest number. Although I have no figures to prove it, I can surmise that the Philippines may also hold the world record for having the largest number of the Nativity Scenes (Belens) not only in private homes but also in workplaces, commercial centers, schools, hospitals, prisons, airports, government buildings, and town squares. This proliferation of the Nativity scene all over the archipelago is a great antidote to the increasing secularization of the celebration of Christmas one finds in many formerly Christian countries. In fact, in some countries it is even prohibited to display the Christmas creche because of a distorted sense of the separation of church and state.
Pope Francis just issued an Apostolic Letter on the Meaning and Importance of the Nativity Scene. He reminded us that the depiction of Jesus’ birth is itself a simple and joyful proclamation of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. For those Christians who have the very salutary habit of reading some passages of the New Testament every day, it easy to understand what Pope said when he describes the nativity scene as a living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture. In the same way that when we read passages from the Bible we are able to contemplate one or another truth of our faith, contemplating the Christmas story in vivid figures helps us to “to set out on a spiritual journey, drawn by the humility of the God who became man in order to encounter every man and woman. We come to realize that so great is his love for us that he became one of us, so that we in turn might become one with him.”
Pope Francis has a special attachment to the Belen because it was his patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi, who originated the practice of building the Christmas creche. As he wrote in the Apostolic Letter: “Let us go back to the origins of the Christmas creche so familiar to us. We need to imagine ourselves in the little Italian town of Greccio, near Rieti. St. Francis stopped there, most likely on his way back to Rome where on 20 November 1223 he had received the confirmation of his rule from Pope Honorius III. Francis had earlier visited the Holy Land, and caves in Greccio reminded him of the countryside of Bethlehem. It may also be that the ‘Poor Man of Assisi’ had been struck by the mosaics in the Roman Basilica of Saint Mary Major depicting the birth of Jesus, close to the place, where, according to an ancient tradition, the wooden panels of the manger are preserved.
“The Franciscan Sources describe in detail what then took place in Greccio. Fifteen days before Christmas, Francis asked a local man named John to help him realize his desire ‘to bring to life the memory of the babe born in Bethlehem, to see as much as possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he was laid upon a bed of hay.’ At this, his faithful friend went immediately to prepare all that the saint had asked. On 25 December, 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. When Francis arrived, he found the manger full of hay, an ox and a donkey. All those present experienced a new and indescribable joy in the presence of the Christmas scene. The priest then solemnly celebrated the Eucharist over the manger, showing the bond between the incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist. At Greccio there were no statues; the nativity scene was enacted and experienced by all who were present.”
There are two countries in Europe that may surpass the Philippines at least in the quality, if not the quantity, of Nativity scenes during the Christmas season. They are Spain and Italy. In fact, in these countries, there are cities in which the Christmas creche is permanently displayed the whole year and is a tourist attraction. During my years in Barcelona, Spain, I saw some of the most elaborate Nativity scenes complete with the whole town of Bethlehem and all types of engineering structures (waterfalls, windmills, irrigation systems, as well as people occupied with their daily work). There is one town in Negros Oriental (Tanjay) that has the Nativity scene displayed the whole year. Lest we get lost in the physical aspects of the Belen, however, let us make sure that such a practice is considered only as a means to evoke in us a supernatural reaction. When he asked why the Christmas creche arouses such wonder and move us so deeply, Pope Francis answers that “it shows God’s tender love; the Creator of the universe lowered himself to take up our littleness. The gift of life, in all its mystery, becomes all the more wondrous as we realize that the son of Mary is the source and sustenance of all life. In Jesus, the Father has given us a brother who comes to seek us out whenever we are confused or lost, a loyal friend ever at our side. He gave us his Son who forgives us and frees us from our sins.”
It is no coincidence that the majority of people who are represented in the Nativity scene come from the poorer members of society, i.e., shepherds and farmers, not to mention the Holy Family themselves. I hope that this Christmas, foremost in our minds is what we can do for the poor in our country, both materially and spiritually. Pope Francis could not be clearer in his appealing to us to provide for the needs of the poor. “The presence of the poor and the lowly in the Nativity scene remind us that God became man for the sake of those who feel most in need of his love and who ask him to draw near to them. Jesus, ‘gentle and humble in heart’ (Mt 11:29) was born in poverty and led a simple life in order to teach us to recognize what is essential to act accordingly. The Nativity scene clearly teaches that we cannot let ourselves be fooled by wealth and fleeting promises of happiness. We see Herod’s palace in the background, closed and deaf to the tidings of joy. By being born in a manger, God himself launches the only true revolution that can give hope and dignity to the disinherited and the outcast: the revolution of love, the revolution of tenderness. From the manger, Jesus proclaims, in a meek yet powerful way, the need for sharing with the poor as the path to a more human and fraternal world in which no one is excluded or marginalized.”
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Tags: Dr. Bernardo M. Villegas