Continuing our journey through Advent, we’ll look at some of the tangible items we use to help enrich our experience throughout the season.
Let’s begin with the Christmas Crèche, or Nativity scene. The creation of the crèche is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. At the time, St. Francis was a deacon and was visiting a small town to celebrate Christmas. The chapel where Mass was to be held was too small to hold all of the people in the town, so he wanted to create a scene outside as a visual tool to help the people celebrate the birth of Christ. In order to avoid accusations of making a mockery of the event or making too light of it, St. Francis went to Pope Honorius III to obtain approval from the head of the Church for his plan, which the Pope gave.
Keeping in mind how human beings learn and experience through their five senses, read how St. Bonaventure describes the scene in his biography on St. Francis:
Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ…[Master John of Greccio] affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvelously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.
Now, close your eyes and imagine yourself in that scene. See the manger and St. Francis holding the baby. Smell the animals and the hay. Hear the chanting of the Psalms and the Gospel. It is not difficult to understand how this first nativity scene was beautiful to witness and how it would have enriched the magnitude of the true meaning of Christmas as the humble birth of the Word Incarnate.
These days, the nativity scenes in our homes and churches are not quite as lifelike as the first one created by St. Francis. Nonetheless, they continue to assist us in creating a deeper participation in the Advent and Christmas seasons. The crèche reminds us how Jesus came into the world – as an innocent, vulnerable infant, completely dependent on His mother and father, in the humblest of surroundings. The scene also highlights the true humanity of Mary and Joseph. Joseph is a loving and protective husband and father who, despite all of the closed doors, managed to provide some semblance of comfort for his new family, while Mary, who had been the living tabernacle of God for the past nine months, generously shared Him with us for the good of generations to come. The humility encapsulated by the setting – the stable, manger, animals, and hay – should cause us to consider how much of what we have is truly necessary, versus how much we are caught up in things of the world. This Advent, spend some time meditating upon a nativity scene, keeping in mind the first nativity brought to you by St. Francis.
Another devotional tool that is commonly used during this time of year is the Advent calendar. By most accounts, the Advent calendar became part of our tradition in the 19th century, which is relatively recent considering the 2,000-year history of the Church. Its later arrival illustrates how humans are continually seeking out tangible ways to express their faith and deepen their participation in the things of God. The Advent calendar is, simply put, an outward expression of our anticipation of Jesus’ birth. We count down the days until He arrives, sometimes with a piece of chocolate each day, but hopefully always with a prayer of hope and gratitude. However, while most of our devotional aids help us to understand heavenly realities, the Advent calendar is primarily a worldly construct. God is outside of the construct of time and does not operate in it the same way we do. We count down the days, but for God, one minute is an eternity and an eternity, one minute. Jesus does not need a calendar or a watch to ensure an on-time arrival – He is always perfectly right on time. So, while an Advent calendar helps us mark our anticipation of His coming, it can also be a reminder to us of how God operates in our own lives. When we pray to God and expect answers to our prayers within a certain time frame, we often become frustrated, not understanding God’s will for our life, which is not how we should go about things. Surely, as Joseph knocked on each door looking for lodging, he was concerned about finding a place in time for the arrival of his Son. I imagine with each knock he muttered a prayer – Lord, please let this place have room for us! – and with each denial, he trusted God would provide according to His will. Of course, His will was for humble beginnings in a stable, but the space was provided just in time: God’s time. Perhaps it was not exactly the answer Joseph was looking for in His prayers and in his humanity, but it was the right answer for the eternal God in the right moment.
We cannot escape our sense of time while we remain on this earth, so we should, most certainly, use our Advent calendars to mark our hope and anticipation for the coming of Jesus. However, this Advent, we can also use it to meditate on our concept of time versus God’s. How can we change our prayers in a way that acknowledges that God will always provide for us right on time, in His time? Since God sees all things at all times, eternally, He knows better than we do, when to arrive for our spiritual and temporal needs.