4thSunday of Advent
- · Dan’s Deliberations, Discoveries, & Declarations
- · Quote of the Day
- · Today’s Gospel Reading
- · Gospel Reflection
- · Reflection Prayer
“The Nativity Scene”
The nativity scene (also known as a crèche, manger scene, or crib) is a depiction of the birth of Jesus as described in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Nativity scenes display figures representing the infant Jesus, His mother Mary, and His Step-father Joseph. Other characters from the nativity story such as shepherds, the Magi, and angels may be displayed near the manger in a barn (or cave) intended to accommodate farm animals. A donkey and an ox are typically depicted in the scene, as well as the camels belonging to the Magi. (The symbolism of the animals of the crèche will be covered later)
A nativity scene takes its inspiration from the accounts of the birth of Jesus found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Luke’s narrative describes an angel announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds who then visit the humble site where Jesus is found lying in a manger, a trough for cattle feed (cf., Luke 2:8-20). Matthew’s narrative tells of “wise men” (in Greek: “magoi”) who follow a star to the house where Jesus dwelt, thus indicating that the “Magi” found Jesus some time later (within two years after Jesus’ birth), rather than on the exact day of His birth (cf., Matthew.2:1-23). Matthew’s account does not mention the angels and shepherds, while Luke’s narrative is silent on the Magi and the star. The Magi and the angels are often displayed in a nativity scene with the Holy Family and the shepherds although there is no scriptural basis for their presence (cf., Luke 2:7-17).
Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 (and a “living” one at that) intending thereby to cultivate the worship of Christ after being inspired by his recent visit to the Holy Land where he had been shown Jesus’ traditional birthplace. Francis wanted to place an emphasis for Christmas being more on the “worship of Christ” than upon the secular materialism and gift giving as the priority.
Acted out in a cave near Greccio, Italy, St. Francis’ nativity scene was a living one with humans and animals cast in the Biblical roles. Pope Honorius III gave his blessing to the exhibit. Such “nativity” performances became hugely popular and spread throughout all of Christendom. The scene’s popularity inspired communities throughout Catholic countries to stage similar pantomimes.
Within a hundred years of St. Francis’ act of piety and faith, every Catholic Church in Italy was expected to have a nativity scene at Christmastime. Eventually, figurines replaced the living human and animal participants. Over time, static scenes grew to elaborate affairs with richly robed figurines placed in intricate landscape settings.
The scene’s popularity inspired much reproduction and replication in Catholic countries throughout the world. In the early modern period (1500 – 1700), sculpted cribs were set up in Catholic Church’s and homes, often exported from Italy. By the end of the 1800’s, nativity scenes became popular beyond Catholic settings, and many versions of various sizes – – and in various materials such as terracotta, paper, wood, wax, and ivory – – were marketed, often with a “stable-style” backdrop setting. In some Catholic countries still today, the nativity scene is more popular than the Christmas tree.
Animals in nativity scenes
A donkey (or ass) and an ox typically appear in nativity scenes. Besides the necessity of animals for a manger, there is a biblical reference to Isaiah:
“An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; but Israel does not know, my people has not understood” (Isaiah 1:3).
The ox traditionally represents “patience”, the “nation of Israel”, and the Old Testament “sacrificial worship”. The ass represents “humility”, “readiness to serve”, and “Gentiles”.
The ox and the ass, as well as other animals, became well-entrenched as part of the nativity scene tradition. Other animals introduced to nativity scenes – – over time and societal culture – – include camels, sheep, and even elephants.
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
“From Mary we learn to surrender to God’s will in all things. From Mary we learn to trust even when all hope seems gone. From Mary we learn to love Christ her Son and the Son of God.” ~ Pope John Paul II
Today’s reflection: Mary visits Elizabeth, who sings praise to Mary and her child. How beautiful are YOUR words (prayers) to Mary?
(NAB Luke 1:39-45) 39 During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit,42 cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lordshould come to me? 44 For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
Today is the last Sunday before Christmas. Our Gospel reading this day prepares us to witness Christ’s birth. We are shown in this reading “how” Jesus was recognized as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, even before His birth. Today’s Gospel turns our attention from the ministry of John the Baptist – – to events preceding John’s birth. The story of John the Baptist and his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, are reported only in Luke’s Gospel. In reporting this event, Luke connects the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus, thus establishing John’s early relationship to Jesus Christ, the Messiah, some thirty years before Jesus’ public ministry.
Today’s Gospel recalls Mary’s “actions” after the announcement of Jesus’ birth by the Archangel, “Gabriel”. Mary travels to visit Elizabeth, her cousin, who is also six months pregnant. Elizabeth greets Mary with a true and full recognition of the “roles” that they, and their unborn children, will play in God the Father’s redemptive plan for salvation. If we continue to read the verses following today’s reading, in Luke’s Gospel, we would hear Mary respond to Elizabeth’s greeting with her own beautiful song of praise, the “Magnificat”. Both women – – Mary and Elizabeth – – recall, repeat, and endorse God’s past history of showing favor upon the people of Israel, testified to in their individual “songs of faith and praise”.
Mary, in the early stages of her pregnancy, is in a hurry to see Elizabeth. Mary is taking Jesus – – the “Good News”, the “Word” Incarnate – – to her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth – – a few days’ journey away. Why? I don’t believe she is motivated by a personal human fear of her pregnancy and subsequent labor & delivery, and of the fear of caring for and nurturing her soon-to-be newborn infant “king”. However, she is a young teenager (most believe around age 14), and being pregnant is pretty overwhelming experience for ANYONE, much less a child-woman.
Mary knows that she needs calming and wise guidance in her life. She is probably eager and excited to see Elizabeth, and to learn from her. This whole experience can’t help but be exciting, for both women. Mary, in travelling to Elizabeth, will certainly help in the delivering and care of Elizabeth’s newborn, just prior to experiencing a similar event herself.
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit out in a loud voice (Luke 1:41).
In a charismatic moment – – talking through the divine influence of the Holy Spirit dwelling within her – – Elizabeth spontaneously erupts with a beautiful bouquet of words – – a song – – directed at Mary:
“Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:42-45).
Why is Mary “blessed”? The word “blessed” [“makarios” in Greek] literally means “happiness” or “beatitude”. It describes a kind of JOY which is serene, untouchable, self-contained, and independent from chance or changing circumstances of life.
Mary is “blessed” because she heard the “Word” of God and responded to this “Word” with the gift of her WHOLE being and life!! We too have hear the “Word” of God and are invited to join with Christ in HIS complete and total offering to God the Father as well. Are you responding?
In Luke, even before His birth, Jesus is identified – – as the true Lord of God’s “chosen people”. Both Mary and Elizabeth are carrying children of destiny – – then, in the future, and forever and ever. Kind words of love and praise are exchanged between these two women. Together, their children, Jesus and John the Baptist, will praise God and bless each other as well – – through THEIR words and actions.
Elizabeth, the wife of a Temple high-priest, knew Jewish scripture well; probably better than most women of that time. She was familiar with the verses from Deuteronomy and from the prophetess, Judith:
“Blessed be the fruit of your womb, the produce of your soil and the offspring of your livestock, the issue of your herds and the young of your flocks!” (Deuteronomy 28:4);
“Then Uzziah said to her [Judith], ‘Blessed are you, daughter, by the Most High God, above all the women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, the creator of heaven and earth, who guided your blow at the head of the leader of our enemies’” (Judith 13:18).
“Now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time” (Luke 1:20).
Mary’s role as a true “believer” – – in Luke’s infancy narrative (Chapter 2) – – should be seen in connection with the explicit mention of her presence among “those who believed” after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as found at the beginning of the book, the “Acts of the Apostles”:
“All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and His brothers” (Acts 1:14).
Mary “believed” – – from the beginning – – and never wavered!! Can any of us claim this fact as true in our own lives? I know I can’t – – but I definitely know and BELIEVE it is true now!!
These few words from today’s Gospel, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45) truly characterizes Mary’s whole, entire, life. Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will say:
“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it” (Luke 8:21).
In Cana, at a wedding feast, she asks her son to intervene when the wine supply ran short. Even though Jesus never promises to do anything, she says:
“Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5)
Finally, at the Holy Cross, though she did not – – could not – – understand why Jesus, her beloved son, was being treated in such a way, she remained (and remains still) the ever-faithful disciple, staying by His side when nearly all others abandon Jesus at His greatest time of need.
Mary truly – – and fully – – “believed”!! Mary was in the thick of human life with Jesus; yet, she was “one-of-us” as well!! She is THE model for each of us in our individual lives. Hmm, when I believe as Mary does, I will be blessed indeed!!
To be “chosen” by God is an awesome privilege and responsibility. Mary received both a crown of joy and a cross of sorrow when she said, “your will be done”. However, her joy was not diminished by her sorrow – – because it was fueled by her faith, hope, and trust in God and in His promises. God gives us too, a supernatural JOY, enabling us to witness to any sorrow or pain: a JOY neither life nor death can take away.
The Holy Spirit helps reveal Jesus’ identity as the saving “God” to those who believe. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and “sings” to Mary her praise – – because Mary bears the promised Lord Savior, the true Messiah. We “sing” these words of praise to Mary when we pray the “Hail Mary”. Even John the Baptist – – the unborn child in Elizabeth’s womb – – is said to recognize the presence of the Lord, showing signs of his own “voiceless” song of praise, by leaping for JOY in Elizabeth’s womb.
I sometimes feel just as Elizabeth felt when Mary arrived to her home with the unborn Lord: a total awe that our heavenly Mother AND – – Jesus Himself – – would come TO me, and to stay WITH me! It’s is challenging for me to believe that Mary, and the Trinitarian God, can love me – – a SINNER – – with a love more than I can ever imagine! How can this happen TO ME; I do not deserve this type and amount of love?!!
Like Elizabeth in today’s Gospel reading, I feel honored, surprised, and in total awe with what is happening in my faith life. However, I know that it is by God’s grace that I get everything I need in this life – – His forgiveness, an awareness, love, knowledge, and the tools and abilities I need to do good works for HIM. Everything I possess, obtain, experience, and produce in life is a blessed gift – – a grace – – from, and to, God Himself.
It is appropriate in this Advent season for each of us to consider the “role” of Mary in God’s redemptive plan of salvation. Elizabeth describes Mary as the “first disciple” – – as the one who “believed” God’s “Word”, as told to her, “would be fulfilled”. Mary’s faith enabled her to recognize the work of God throughout, and within, her people’s history AND in her own personal life. Her willingness and openness to God’s “Word” and “action” in her life, allowed God to work in and through her so that salvation might come to everyone – – FOREVER!! Because Mary abandoned her “SELF” to God as His instrument, she becomes (and is) a pure and true model and symbol of the Catholic “Universal” Church still today. May we each be like Mary, open and cooperative in God’s plan for salvation, allowing God to work in, with, and through each us to bring others to His redemptive salvation!
In the coming together of Mary and Elizabeth, as described in today’s Gospel, we can learn that other’s can help us recognize God’s presence and action in our own lives. The young and pregnant Mary traveled to her cousin, Elizabeth, because Elizabeth’s pregnancy was a divine sign that everything said to Mary, by the Archangel Gabriel, would truly happen. Elizabeth recognized Mary as the mother of her (and ALL Israel’s) Lord in view of the fact that her unborn child, John the Baptist, leapt at the sound of Mary’s greeting. Elizabeth and Mary rejoiced together at the wonderful things God was doing in their lives. They each sang songs of praise; they were truly Re–JOY–Sing!! We too are “blessed” when we have people who help us recognize God’s “Word” and “action” in our lives. We can be, and are, God’s instrument for others among us, Re-JOY-Sing in God’s plan for us.
Think about the times you helped others, or when other’s helped you, in some way. We actually need the help of others in order to recognize God’s presence and action in our own lives. After all, we are a “COMMUNITY OF FAITH”!! Pray that as we share our faith with others (this is called “evangelization”), we may help others recognize God’s presence and action in their own lives.