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Nativity is more than decoration

Christmas lights glisten in store windows, streets, city parks and private homes. Christmas carols and music draw us into the Christmas spirit. Giving and receiving beautifully wrapped gifts is also part of the pre-Christmas excitement.

Yet, it is another Christmas symbol, the nativity manger, that more fully expresses the meaning of Christmas. In whatever form or medium it is depicted, the nativity manger scene, sometimes referred to as “crèche” or “crib,” is a reminder of the mystery of God coming as a human being into our world 2,000 years ago. The scene is presented in simple terms. Joseph and Mary — travel weary — find a place to rest in an animal shelter, and there, surrounded by the animals the long-awaited messianic king is born.

I trust there are many families and churches in this community that set up manger scenes for the Christmas celebration.

St. Mary’s congregation has a lighted manger scene beside its Family Life Center on Main Street, and inside St. Mary Basilica, which is open to visitors daily, there is a manger scene with an interesting history.

The figures in the manger were donated in 1887 by the then-pastor of St. Mary, the Rev. Mathurin Grignon. The shelter in the manger was built by Mr. Lev M. Dawson, who died in 1950. The shelter and the figures have been in use each Advent and Christmas season since they were donated.

The origin of the nativity manger dates to an era about 1,200 years after the birth of Christ. It was St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) who introduced the nativity manger scene as part of popular Christmas tradition. He wanted to help believers and especially worshippers remember and understand the story of Jesus’ birth. He presented the figures from the Gospel stories in visual form, and by bringing these together in a barn-like scene, he touched the minds and hearts of people over the centuries.

Many of the nativity scenes, with Jesus in the manger and under the loving gaze of Mary and Joseph, include a donkey and an ox. Lambs and sheep arrive in the scene with the shepherds, and later, camels arrive with the visiting kings or magi. The tradition begun by St. Francis of displaying a “manger scene,” although frequently challenged in the secular society of the past two decades, continues in many churches and in family homes during Advent and Christmas seasons.

One tradition is that the nativity scene is set up in stages, beginning on the first Sunday of Advent and reaching completion with all the figures, including that of the infant, for the worship celebrations on Christmas Eve.

The manger scene is more than a Christmas decoration. It is a visual aid for prayer and devotion. It is also a teaching aid in that each figure in the nativity scene can serve as a model for us to live as believers.

Mary, the humble and gentle Jewish girl, reminds us what can happen in our lives if we are open to God’s grace. Joseph — strong, loving and courageous — challenges us to be faithful and dedicated to whatever work or mission we have in life. Jesus, seen in the manger as a helpless infant, was the long-awaited savior challenging all of us now to be his witnesses. The shepherds, seen as low on the social order of their time, probably represent us well because they had nothing to bring to the Christ-child but were graced to be in his presence.

The Magi, willing to endure the risk of journeying afar and searching for the Christ-child, symbolize those who are seekers of the truth in the midst of distractions, personal sacrifices and dangers. The angels, bringers of the good news of the Savior’s birth, remind us that the Christ-child born in Bethlehem continues in the midst of our lives. The animals in the manger scene represent all creation needing and welcoming its savior, and challenging us to be respectful of all of God’s created world.

My suggestion is that every believer, during this Christmas season, stand before the nativity manger to reflect on the mystery of the Son of God coming into our world as an infant 2,000 years ago. If you have children or grandchildren bring them and ask them to pray with you to Jesus. Remind them of the story of Jesus’ birth, and call their attention to the figures in the manger. I pray that you and your family will have the blessings of the Christ-child, as depicted in the manger scene, this Christmas. May you be abundantly blessed during 2013.


The Rev. David O’Connor is pastor of St. Mary Basilica and Assumption Catholic Church in Natchez. He has ministered in Mississippi since the civil rights era. He can be reached by e-mail stmarybasilica@cableone.net.