Christmas is central to Franciscan Spirituality in so many ways but none more than the crèche. At our motherhouse we have a large crèche that actually occupies its own room during the Christmas season. It was made by Fr. Farrell who was our chaplain when I first entered our community in 1964. I was sitting there on Christmas evening when everyone else was in their living units and I had just arrived home from a visit with my family. There was something so nourishing about that quiet moment. I had memories of the crib being housed in our pre-Vatican chapel right on the St. Joseph side and I have a picture of me and my father kneeling at the crib. It was a sentimental journey of course but exactly what you should be doing on a Christmas evening when you’re too energized to go to bed and too tired to sit and tell everyone about Christmas with your family and all the presents you received.
I began to ponder the crèche and remember the crèche I grew up with which sat on the platform right next under the tree. It was one my father had made when he was a little boy and my sister still has it today. The figures were all old and chipped but I remember exactly what they all looked like because I had touched them so often as they sat under our tree. When I went to Greccio I bought home a set of figures that were made of terracotta from the hills of Greccio so they now have the flavor of a Franciscan but the housing of our family heirloom. I remember the crib we had on my first mission and my favorite of more recent years at the Tau with all the Precious Moments figurines. Now in my living unit we have one my friend Eileen gave us last year that were carved in Africa from limestone they are tall and slender and rather funny looking but precious to us because they were given to us by a friend. Each of us has a crèche or perhaps many that live in our memories and tug at our heart. We have memories of children holding the figures and replacing them over and over in different spots around the crib itself.
Franciscan Spirituality is by nature incarnational rejoicing in the reality that the Good and All powerful God who chose to humbly take the form of a small child and experience all that we experience. The little babe we see in the crib symbolizes for us that humility of God that surrenders all to be one with us. God’s love is so extravagant and so unconditional that it can be present in a tiny figurine of Christmas and still transform our hearts and that of all the world on this sacred night. The struggle of Mary and Joseph as they try to stay open to all that God asks of them in bringing to birth this child teaches us that, if we remain open and faithful in our daily struggles, Christ can be born anew within us each day. Looking at Mary and Joseph in the crib we know how connected parenting is for all of us and how much it asks of each of us as well. Jesus’ parents or our parents or the parent within our own heart knows the struggle and the strength inherent in living family life each and every day. Francis tells us that we are mothers and fathers when we bring Christ to others. We see the shepherds, the simple people, who hear the voices of angels and trust enough to risk everything and to go where they are called to go. Are we not also asked to respond like the shepherds we see imaged in the figurines in our crèche — to be simple, to be open, to be willing to go and find the child that the angels told us about whether in our dreams or in the sky. To be shepherd is to listen and trust and respond and adore. And those magi who are on the way in all the cribs this Christmas night. They might be visible or be placed a foot or two away or perhaps even in another room so that we get the sense that they are on the way to this sacred night with wisdom, and trust, and science, and deep belief that draws them to follow a star that might reveal to them the King of all the world. They represent for us those who are different and strange but welcomed at the home of our great Lord and Savior. Oh, these figurines, all of them tell a story about a God who chose to be human so that this God could be one with us, who could show us and tell us about that deep love that God has for each one of us.
All around the world this night are little cribs each with a story about our families and our ancestors and the figurines may be held by the children we love so tenderly or they may simply mesmerize us when the lights are low and the stillness of the night calms our fears and our stress and our busy-ness so that we can look and believe that tonight — this very night — God is born inside our hearts — the same God who came to Bethlehem as this little tiny babe so that he could be a brother to us all. May Christmas live inside our heart this Christmas night.