It’s gravity-defying, despite its size and weight. It’s weather-defying, thanks, in part, to the lighted canopy overhead. And in a not insignificant way, it’s time-defying, too.
The Nativity scene gracing St. Peter’s Square this year stands somewhat miraculously, given that it was sculpted from 720 tons of sand. Set against the backdrop of the Vatican’s Basilica, with the requisite Christmas tree nearby, the sight of it captures what Marshall McLuhan meant by his famous dictum: “the medium is the message.”
The medium, in this case, is sand. It’s a rather curious choice for constructing a creche, but a brilliant symbol for this particular scene.
At its unveiling, Francesco Moraglia, the Patriarch of Venice, explained that the earthly element emphasizes the ephemeral character of our precarious human existence. As any beach-goer knows from experience, sand comes and goes with every wave. It may stand for a time, but the tides will eventually turn a child’s castle back to the grains of sand from which it came.
Still, as the patriarch emphasized, “fragility can be saved.” And there’s the message – a proclamation that, in fact, it has been saved, in and through the enfleshment of that fragility in the child Jesus at Christmas. As Pope Francis pointed out on this same occasion, “The sand, a poor material, recalls the simplicity, the smallness and also the fragility … with which God revealed himself through the Birth of Jesus in the precariousness of Bethlehem.”
Our experience tells us, with each passing year, how fragile and precarious human life can be. Conflicts continue. Wars rage on. Political strife perpetually divides. Sin seems to know no surrender, death no end. Like the sand on the seashore, we are here in earthly castles today, gone with the new tide tomorrow.
But Christmas changes that.
The child sculpted here in such precarious smallness will grow up to become humanity’s great Savior. He will heal our fragility by his words and deeds, overcome our mortality in his Passion and Resurrection, and elevate human temporality to the heavens through his Ascension. And for those who truly believe in this mystery, he makes it possible to be one with him forever.
For most people, though, forever seems very far away.
Indeed, as Pope Francis recently noted, “one phenomenon that characterizes the present culture, in fact, is precisely (a) closure to transcendental horizons, the withdrawal into self, the almost exclusive attachment to the present, forgetting or censoring the dimensions of the past and especially of the future, perceived, particularly by young people, as dark and full of uncertainty. The future beyond death seems, in this context, inevitably even more remote, unfathomable or completely nonexistent.”
Christmas changes that, too.
In the existence of this newborn child, born on that holy night, the eternal Word draws near, the one who is from the beginning with God and who is God. The fragile child depicted in sand is the one through whom all things came into being. He is the Word who became flesh and lived among us, as the Gospel of John poetically reminds us on Christmas day.
Our culture enthusiastically celebrates this special time of year. We decorate trees, sing carols, enjoy the company of family and friends, and share gifts galore. But, as Archbishop Chaput recently noted, if that’s all it is, we miss the point. Christmas is not just another secular holiday.
Nativity scenes are intended to remind us where the real meaning is to be found. This year’s version at the Vatican does just that in a monumental way. Passers-by will marvel at its sculpted artistry. They will be fascinated by the feat of engineering that keeps the sand sculpture from collapsing.
But what is depicted in the unique scene made of sand communicates so much more. The medium dramatically reminds us of the message that Christmas proclaims: born into this precarious human life, the eternal God is with us (“Emmanuel”) to transform the time of our lives forever.
Father Dailey is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne. This article originally appeared in Seminarian Casual, the blog of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa.
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