“Now it happened that while Mary and Joseph were visiting Bethlehem, the time came for her to give birth to her first-born. She snuggled the infant in his swaddling clothes and laid him in the manger found in the stable area of the residence, there being no room for them in the upstairs living area.” – Luke 2:6,7
It fell to me to set up the Nativity creche for Greyfriars’ Abbey, one of a simple, rustic variety, though the wooden figures are works of art by one of the Austrian brothers who was well-known for his craftsmanship. This creche of rough boards and hay straw with its plain yet elegant wooden sculptures gives witness to the Benedictine value of bringing simplicity and quality together. We open the gates of the Abbey so that the townspeople and the sojourners can enter into the Cloister and spend time gazing into the Nativity. We have no dramatic lighting; we have no piped in music; we have no bells or whistles, no jewels or gold-leaf; merely, a rough looking stable built out of discarded barn boards, a hand made manger made of scrap lumber, plenty of hay straw, and those beautifully carved figures. When it rains, the creche gets wet. When it snows, winter has come to Bethlehem. When the temperature falls to freezing cold at night, I suppose those wooden figures shiver. Yet, the people come … they always come, they always have, and I sense they always will. Somehow Christian souls are always beckoned to stable straw. And because nativity is outside, the creche also hosts guests of another kind, the squirrels, the birds, now and then, a fox or a deer, once, even a wayward bobcat.
At the nearby cathedral, their creche is inside the shelter of the majestic Gothic style sanctuary, there draped in the colored light that falls into this cavernous holy place through the towering stained glass windows. This nativity is a most dramatic display, crafted with tasteful elegance. It appears to be built right into the cathedral, though it is removed with much labor after Epiphany. All who enter that cathedral pass by that beautiful presentation. Here it is sheltered from the elements and is kept safe from animals and thieves and other scoundrels.
We at Greyfriars’ Abbey have the baby Jesus being born in the streets; at the cathedral, they have the baby Jesus being born inside the “Church”. I can see the reason for both and I can see the need for both. Christ was born a child of the ancient tradition and yet Christ was born a child of the something new. Christ was born a Child incarnated into the life of the Church – the Church both inside and outside the walls – and the Christ was born a Child incarnated into the life of the world. And such has always been the spiritual understanding of the Christian Way … we are children born of the “cathedral” and we are children ministering in the streets.
On December 21st, our Franciscan brothers will bring a bus of homeless souls to Greyfriars’ Abbey … and then the monks and these brothers and sisters of the streets will spend the night in the Cloister, sleeping around the Nativity. In the morning, we will serve breakfast, provide gifts of clothes and blankets, and sing Christmas carols – and, somewhat surprising – but then again not so surprising – those homeless souls will know the words to those Christmas carols. I suppose they learned them somewhere.
So in the Cloister of the Abbey, carols are sung in the stable. Over at the cathedral, carols are sung near the creche. And I would suspect that way back when, a young Jewish mother sang hymns and lullabies beside a manger.
My Loved Ones, make some time before this season is over … to gaze long and thoughtfully into a Nativity. Our souls need the seasoning of such holy moments.
Brother Anthony of the Cross