St. Francis of Assisi started the custom of having a crèche at Christmas time. In many parts of the world people will have a small manger scene in their homes. Many churches will have a larger scene with statues of all the major figures: Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the magi, the animals and of course the infant Jesus.
In Rome, the custom is a little more elaborate. The manger scene is called the presepio. The scene is not just of the traditional figures already mentioned but include many other people and images. The churches with these scenes will have a lighted star on the outside of the church hanging above or near the door. The purpose of the star is to let those passing by know that there is a presepio inside.
One of the most elaborate scenes is located in the Church of SS. Cosmos and Damian which is located near the Coliseum. (This particular church keeps the scene up all year long so visitors to the city can see it.) The manger scene fills a whole room. It is not that the figures are large; they are not.
The scene has all sorts of figurines representing the normal, everyday life of people who live and work in the world. There are farm scenes, market places, people washing their clothes, families at table and in the fields, and so forth. In the midst of all this activity there is the Holy Family. In the midst of all the activity of the world, good and bad, the Savior was born.
This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. The celebration commemorates the visit of the magi to the child Jesus, the King of the Jews. The significance of this feast is that Jesus is made manifest to the nations. The magi who come from foreign lands to see the newborn king represent the “nations.”
The light that comes into the world comes not only for the Jewish people but for all peoples. The magi, following the light of the star, search for the child until they find him in Bethlehem and “… on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
Coming to the close of the Christmas season, we have the opportunity to reflect, once again, on the birth of the Messiah. Our celebrations recall and remember that he has been born among us. We recognize the gift of life that comes through him. We celebrate God becoming man and living among us. We commemorate God taking on flesh so that he could give it up on our behalf and thereby opening the gates of eternal life.
When parents in Rome take their children to see the different presepio scenes, the first thing they teach the children to do is to look for the infant Jesus. Scanning the scenes they search diligently for the child. When they find the infant Jesus they rejoice. Perhaps that image can stay with us today and in the year ahead.
God is with us. He has been born among us. Jesus lives among us and is present in our world. There are so many things in our world that can distract us from noticing him. Just think for a moment of how many people were living in Bethlehem at the time of his birth; and then how many recognized that he was born.
Remember, Mary and Joseph had to go to a manger because there was “no room in the inn.” It does not seem like the inn keeper or his guests recognized. Even though the magi were following the star, once they got to Jerusalem, they had to search for the child, even seeking the help of duplicitous Herod.
In a similar way we have to search so that we can see; and when we see, rejoice, bowing down in homage of him who loves us and gives us life.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.