Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Editor’s Note: This first of two posts is part of a lecture given to inaugurate the Institute for Church Life’s 2nd annual International Crèche Pilgrimage, Dwelling with Love Incarnate.
This December, during the season of Advent, my wife and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. I say this not as an invitation for the wider internet community to bestow me with some gift to honor the occasion. Married in the midst of Advent, the most common gift that we received were nativity sets. All sorts. Nativity sets that were Christmas tree ornaments; small stand-alone sets from Mexico, Thailand, and Palestine; a large nativity set purchased by a group of friends (and now in the midst of being systematically destroyed by our son). Our marriage has unfolded in a home overflowing with crèches.
When asked to give this second annual lecture, I wanted to reflect a bit on what the crèche means for family life in general. In the heated debates that seemed to mark the recent Synod on the Family, it nonetheless became obvious that a robust spiritual vision of family life is necessary as we find ourselves immersed in the third millennium. That is, it is the family in particular in which the renewal of the Church will unfold. As Pope Francis noted in his homily delivered at the World Meeting of Families:
These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.
Thus, in this series, I would like to invite us to reflect on how the practice of keeping a crèche in the home is in fact one of these small acts of love, ultimately transformative of what it means for the family to dwell together in love incarnate. It is an occasion of evangelization, that is to quote Paul VI, “…bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new” (EN 18).
Yet, it seems right in examining family life through the lens of the crèche that we adopt the same aesthetic pedagogy of the crèches themselves. Thus, this series will unfold in three parts, each beginning with a piece of music related to the nativity of Christ. Through these pieces of music, we will explore three ways that the crèche provides a way of renewing the domestic Church in particular:
1) Forming us to see domestic life as a locus for the enfleshment of God’s love.
2) Inviting us to participate in the Incarnation through the drama of history.
3) Seeing the family as an icon of the new evangelization, one in which the practice of keeping a crèche manifests the Church’s memory in history.
O Magnum Mysterium
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
The irony of the nativity of Jesus Christ is that its prevalence within various forms of artistic media, including our nativity sets, has perhaps led us to no longer be filled with awe at the wonderful event taking place in the manger. We see a mother and a father. A collection of angels, singing songs of joy at the birth of Jesus. Three kings, offerings gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A cast of animals, perhaps even overly interested in the birth of this human child.
Yet, the setting of O Magnum Mysterium (a text sung by monks at the rising of the sun on Christmas morning) invites us to look anew at the iconic mystery unfolding in these crèches. O great mystery, O wonderful sacrament that these animals in particular are the ones, who see the Lord born of a Virgin. What is this mystery, this sacred sign? And what’s the deal with the animals?
For some time, I imagined that I would want to return to being an infant. I considered a world in which I no longer had to be awake for significant periods of times; a world in which my every hunger was met by someone when I made the smallest cry; a world in which although immobile, everyone seemed to delight in moving me about. Yet, as I watched my son in the earliest days of his life, I came to the realization that infancy is in fact a rather humiliating period of life. The infant has thoughts that he or she cannot communicate to anyone, being reduced to making desires known through tears alone. The infant must rely on those around him or her for food, for shelter, for cleanliness, for comfort in the midst of sorrows. The infant is subject to the powers of the world, unable to even really recognize threats against his or her welfare.
Thus, the great mystery, the wonderful sacrament of the Nativity is the fact that God became fully human as an infant. Divine love was poured out from the bosom of the Father through the Son, a love that makes God radically vulnerable. The very Word that orders creation, that gives meaning to all of human life, that gazes with love upon the Father in the Godhead, becomes flesh pro nobis, for us. Augustine of Hippo, commenting on this fact, preaches:
He lies in a manger, but he holds the whole world in his hands: he sucks his mother’s breasts, but feeds the angels; he is swaddled in rags, but clothes us in immortality; he is suckled, but also worshiped; he could find no room in the inn, but makes a temple for himself in the hearts of believers. It was in order, you see, that weakness might become strong, that strength became weak (Augustine, s. 190.4).
Iconography of the nativity unfolds the radical vulnerability in God in particular ways. The newborn son is depicted wrapped in swaddling clothes, a sign already of the burial clothes that will clothe Mary’s son in the tomb on Good Friday. These icons depict the first bath of the Word made flesh, an image of God’s radical solidarity with the human condition. The crèche scene functions as an icon of the kenosis of the Son, the radical self-emptying love that is the source of the world’s very renewal.
Which brings us to the animals gathered around the crèche? For, perhaps the greatest scandal of the Incarnation, of the enfleshment of the Word, is the hiddenness of the birth of the Son in the first place. He is not born in a palace, a place where the power of the world could be exercised. He is born among the beasts of the field, unable to comprehend the marvel taking place. As Benedict XVI notes about the hiddenness of this birth:
From the moment of his birth, he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in wordly terms. Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends. So one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path (Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Volume 3, 67).
In the birth of the first born Son in the silence of the evening, we have an image of what it now means to be fully human. The fullness of our humanity is exercised through the powerlessness of love.
Thus, the wonderful mystery of Christ’s birth is that the renewal of humanity already has begun through the nativity of the Lord. As Ephrem the Syrian notes in Hymn 3 on the Nativity:
Glory to Him, Who never needs us to thank Him.
Yet He [became] need for He loves us, and He thirsted for He cherishes us.
And He asks us to give to Him so that He may give us even more.
His Fruit was mingled with our human nature
to draw us toward Him Who bent down to us (3.17).
As God becomes human, the horizon of humanity opens up so that every aspect of the human condition has the possibility of being drawn into divine life.
For this reason, perhaps, it is most appropriate that the crèche finds pride in place in the home itself. The sacrament of marriage is that taking up of what is most human, most mundane, the domesticity of love, into divine life: “In the union of husband and wife/you give a sign of Christ’s loving gift of grace,/so that the Sacrament we celebrate/might draw us back more deeply/into the wondrous design of your love” (Eucharistic Prayer, For the Celebration of Marriage, B). Yet, there is nothing stunning about this love, as any married couple might note. The love of marriage is lived out through those hidden practices of tenderness that mark married life. With the birth of children, the powerlessness of this love becomes even more evident. Salvation unfolds in the context of the Christian family as it did in the manger: without anyone powerful aware of the mystery taking place.
The crèche, then, forms the family to see its own life as the hidden manifestation of divine love. It reminds the family to expect the unfolding of salvation not simply through signs and wonders but first and foremost in the tender compassion we learn to show one another. In this way, in a world that often devalues such a hidden life, the crèche restores the family to its proper place as the dramatic locale for salvation in the world; as itself a great mystery of divine love.