Of all the decorations that we put out for Christmas, my favorite are my Nativity scenes. Over the years, I have collected many different portrayals of Christ’s birth – from paper cut-outs to nesting dolls – and each offers a different insight into Jesus’s arrival. While most of our scenes are completed on Christmas morning when the Jesus figures are placed in the mangers, our family’s main Nativity is finished right before we take it down on Epiphany. Our Wise Men arrive at the stable after making a journey through our house during Advent and Christmas. With two young children, their journey is almost as perilous as that of the real Magi, and I am always reminded of the real-life challenges that faced each of the people involved in the first Christmas story.
The beauty of Nativity scenes is that they offer us little visual oases amid our festive holiday chaos. When we choose to allow our eyes to rest on them and our minds to embrace them, they draw us towards the reason for our Christmas celebrations and help us to consider Christ’s birth in new and tangible ways. It is for this reason that Pope Francis has noted the importance of these “simple and wonderful” reminders of our faith. In 2019, he wrote that Nativity scenes are “a genuine way of communicating the Gospel, in a world that sometimes seems to be afraid to remember what Christmas really is, and erases the Christian signs, keeping only trivial and commercial images.” Pope Francis invites us to “pause before the nativity scene, because the tenderness of God speaks to us there. There we contemplate divine mercy, which became human flesh and is able to soften our gaze.” Considering the role that Pope Francis sees Nativity scenes playing in our faith, it is not surprising that, each year, the Vatican carefully selects one to display on St. Peter’s Square. Throughout Pope Francis’s Papacy, these yearly displays have served to highlight lessons that are near to his heart.
By Christmas of 2013, Pope Francis’s first Christmas as Pope, his teachings were already subtly influencing the Nativity scene on display in St. Peter’s square. Titled Francis 1223-2013, the scene was meant to remind the faithful of the saint who is credited with first using a Nativity scene to teach the Christian faith and whose name Pope Francis chose as his own: St. Francis of Assisi. Consequently, while that year’s Nativity scene was in many ways a traditional one from Naples, it included an emphasis on the humility of Christ who came to humble and ordinary people. Intermixed with the richly robed traditional figures were peasants dressed in poorer attire. A beggar even knelt before the foot of the Christ Child as a clear reminder that Jesus came for all of us and that He has a heart for the poor and the destitute, just like our current Pope and his namesake.
The Vatican Nativity of 2014 was donated by Verona and staged like an opera. This dramatic setting was meant to remind us that Jesus is God’s masterpiece given to the world. Yet even in this elaborate scene, which differs from the simplicity that Pope Francis often embraces, the youthful faces of Jesus’s parents remind viewers that God’s majesty came to very real, vulnerable people here on earth. Far from a masterpiece meant only for the world’s elite, Jesus was God’s opus for all people.
This idea of Christ coming humbly for each one of us was emphasized in the life-size nativity of 2015. The openness of the scene and the lifelike characteristics of its figures made viewers feel like they could walk into it and begin conversing with the shepherds or fall down in worship before the Christ Child that lay in the middle of a simple, everyday barn scene. In Pope Francis’s address thanking the people of Trento for the Nativity that year, he said that the scene reminds us that Christ “did not change history by performing an elaborate miracle. He came instead with total simplicity, humility, and meekness. God does not like grandiose revolutions of history’s powerful, and he does not use a magic wand to change situations. Instead, he makes himself small, he becomes a child, so as to attract us with love, to touch our hearts with his humble goodness; to unsettle, with his poverty, those who scramble to accumulate the false treasures of this world.”
In 2016, the Vatican Nativity took this message of Christ coming for all of us and sought to help those who saw it to apply it to their lives and actions. In the midst of growing nationalism throughout the world and the migrant crisis in Europe, the Nativity scene included a boat that Pope Francis said was a reminder of migrants who have died while journeying from Africa to Europe. He said, “The painful experience of these brothers and sisters reminds us of that baby Jesus, who could not find shelter, was born in a stable in Bethlehem and was later brought to Egypt to escape Herod’s threat.” One reporter noted that the message of love portrayed in this Nativity scene was emphasized by the homeless men and women who sat around St. Peter’s square waiting for a free hot shower or haircut through Pope Francis’ programs for the homeless.
Love for the least of these was central to the 2017 Nativity, which ensured that the point was truly driven home. My personal favorite of all the Nativity displays during Pope Francis’s papacy, this scene created quite a bit of controversy among people who felt that the message was too intense for Christmas. While the infant Jesus was at the center of the scene, the figures that surrounded the more traditional Christmas statues revealed another aspect of our Savior through the corporal works of mercy that they were performing. In one corner, a woman quenched her neighbor’s thirst. In another, a man offered clothes to a naked boy. At the bottom of the scene, with arms outstretched, a figure walked toward an invalid who was bandaged and flushed with fever. Next to them, someone visited a prisoner and, in a far corner, a young man provided burial for a dead body. The actions of these untraditional figures not only prodded viewers to do what Jesus called them to do, but they reminded them that the irresistible baby lying in a manger would grow up to be a man whose teachings demanded that we take up our cross daily, and who taught us that to truly serve Him, we must care for others. In many ways, the 2017 Vatican Nativity scene was a culmination of the teachings from the earlier Nativity scenes of Pope Francis’s Papacy.
Perhaps because of the clear message given in 2017, the Vatican Nativity Scene of 2018 shifted away from the social teachings that Pope Francis emphasizes and recentered on the nature of Jesus himself. The scene that year was carved from sand, which, like the temporal life on earth that Jesus embraced, lasts only a little while and then is gone. The nature of the sand reminded viewers both of Christ’s amazing victory in overcoming death and of the temporariness of life without Christ. Characteristically focused on Jesus’s willingness to sacrifice and to become one with humble humanity, Pope Francis said of the sand that it, “a poor material, recalls the simplicity, the smallness with which God reveals himself with the birth of Jesus and the precariousness of Bethlehem.”
In 2019, the Vatican Nativity scene drove home our need for such a generous Savior who joins us in our own precarious existence. Donated by people in the Northern Province of Trento, the scene included figures that were made to look like real people from the region, one of whom had recently died. The shepherds wore authentic clothes, some passed down through families and worn by real shepherds. The architecture also reflected the reality of the region where it was made, making it clear that the Christ Child came, not just to people long ago and in a far-off land, but to us here and now. While this is a powerful lesson, the wood from which the scene was made taught the greatest lesson: our need for this small child. The wood was taken from trees that had fallen during a severe storm that hit the region in 2019 and which was largely attributed to global warming. As a result, the image that the scene conveyed was literally that of our Savior being born into the midst of the environmental crisis that looms over us. In short, the Nativity scene showed that Christ’s birth brings the light of hope even into our darkest trials on this earth. That was a timely message for a world that was on the brink of plunging into a global Pandemic.
Amid the first dark pandemic winter surge, many looked to the 2020 Vatican Nativity for a similar message of hope and found it wanting. Unlike previous scenes, this one used modern art to portray Christ’s birth. The figures, which were made by students and teachers in the 1960s and 70s were donated from Castelli. Like large ceramic chess pieces, many viewers found them to be cold and strange while offering little comfort. However, for those who were willing to learn from that which unsettled them, the scene held important spiritual lessons. Some were overt, like the astronaut that was depicted as offering baby Jesus the moon or, in other words, offering him our scientific discoveries and humanity’s greatest accomplishments. In a year when scientists rushed to successfully create vaccines against Covid-19, this seemed particularly relevant and a reminder to give thanks for the gift God has given us through the medical community. Other lessons were more subtle. For example, the school where the figures were made during the last century was intended to “revive and modernize” what was once a thriving ceramic industry in the region of Castelli. Like Pope Francis’s book, Let Us Dream, the scene reminds us that, as the traditions and world around us change, we are faced with a choice: to dream about new ways of being in the world that will benefit all people or to cling to the old, failing ways of existing that have caused pain and suffering and will ultimately fail us. The scene challenges us to let Jesus break out of the boxes we often confine him in and to lead us to new and unexpected places, even when, like Abraham, we do not know where he is leading (Heb 11:8). It was, a message that the world desperately needed to hear, but fiercely resisted.
This year, the Vatican Nativity scene came from the Americas for the first time. Celebrating Peru’s 200th anniversary of independence, the scene depicts Christ’s birth in the setting of Chopca, Peru. The infant Jesus is dressed in the traditional clothes of a baby. The magi come bringing native gifts like quinoa, corn, and potatoes. Instead of donkeys and sheep, the scene is filled with llamas, alpacas and even an Andean Condor. Yet the people are the most captivating part of the scene. Their brightly colored clothing, musical instruments, and joy-filled faces bring a smile to even the most COVID-weary. As Bishop Salcedo of Peru stated, he is constantly learning from the people’s joy and hope, and this is reflected in the Nativity scene on display in St. Peter’s square this year. By choosing to display this Nativity, the Vatican has allowed the people of Peru to teach the world the same valuable lesson that they daily teach their Bishop: that “despite the difficulties, such as the pandemic as well as other ‘pandemics,’ like poverty, corruption or the neglect of government authorities,” it is still possible to find joy and hope in Christ’s birth. In a world that has been repeatedly beaten down by sickness, injustice, environmental destruction, and tribalism, the message of this year’s Vatican Nativity is much needed: Christ has come to all people of all nations and He comes bearing great love and deep joy.
Image: 2018 Vatican Nativity Scene. Adobe Stock. By Antoine.
Discuss this article!
Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.
Ariane Sroubek is a writer, school psychologist and mother to two children here on earth. Prior to converting to Catholicism, she completed undergraduate studies in Bible and Theology at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. She then went on to obtain her doctorate in School and Child Clinical Psychology. Ariane’s writing is inspired by her faith, daily life experiences and education. More of her work can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org and at https://mysustaininggrace.com.