As a child, my favorite Christmas thing was seeing the huge crèche at our parish church, St. Catharine of Siena, here in Cincinnati. We had a beautiful set at home. It fit into the fireplace under the mantle, but I have stronger memories of the huge one in church. Maybe it was because I sang in the choir and so did my brother, a couple grades ahead of me. Every Christmas Eve we choir boys sang Christmas carols in the crowded, darkened church. We sang in Latin, German and English, as we held lighted candles. It was one of the rare times when we all wore our choir robes. It was special.
But over the years, live cribs took on different meanings for me. In an African American parish and in the town churches and village chapels of the Philippines, I experienced a lot of live crèches. I remember goats and sheep in church, a pregnant Mary who got off her pony and lost the plastic bambino strapped under her cloak. That was the same Christmas crèche where some folks wanted to bring a water buffalo or two into the village chapel. The practical problem of a buffalo “accident” could have made us all vacate the chapel so the folks decided to have the water buffalo gawk from the wide open side doors.
The Christmas crèche always stirs our sense of wonder and touches our human hearts. But the crèche also poses a question. Why did God become man? Why did the Word of God take on our human body and form?
Why did God become incarnate is the title of a book by St. Anselm of Canterbury written in the late 11th century. Anselm’s answer was that the Word of God took flesh in order to redeem us, to save us from our sins. Anselm’s answer summarizes what had become the common Christian approach in the west.
Anselm answers the title question in this way. He says that God created the world and put Adam and Eve into Paradise. But, when they sinned God expelled them from Eden as a matter of justice. With an understanding of God based on western notions of justice, Anselm taught that there was no way humankind could pay the price of human sin, though God’s justice demanded satisfaction. Thus, Jesus came into the world, born in the flesh, to sacrifice his life in satisfaction for our sins. That is the only way that there could be satisfaction for the sin of Adam and Eve. In simpler terms Jesus became man because of the sin of Adam and Eve. He obeyed while Adam and Eve had disobeyed God’s command. Thus, he made satisfaction for our sins.
Nevertheless, another theology developed which centered on God’s overflowing love. While it has ancient roots in Greek thought and in the writings of some of the Fathers of the Church, this view was popularized by the Franciscans in the late middle ages. That line of thought points out that the Word of God would have taken on our human flesh, even if Adam and Eve had not sinned.
God is good, so God’s goodness cannot be contained.
God created the world because God’s divine goodness overflows into all creation. As Genesis chapter one repeatedly affirms, the world and all of creation is good, including the human beings who were made in God’s image. The beginning of the Gospel of John (1:3) affirms that “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Moreover, the Epistle to the Colossians (1:15) says: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created. . .” and “. . .through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, . . .making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:20)
When we think about Christmas, we should remember St. Francis and the crib. Francis had such a strong sense of God’s love that he wanted to make the meaning of Christmas visible by dramatizing the birth of God’s Word. So in 1223, according to his biographer, Thomas Celano, Francis organized the people of Greccio to make the first living crib in a cave outside their town. Of course, there were earlier reenactments of the birth of Christ, but tradition attributes the invention of the crèche to St. Francis. That notion has stuck with Catholics for many centuries now.
I hope your Christmas crèches will stamp your hearts with God’s love and humility.