Do you believe in the nativity story depicted in nativity crèches? Those placed in most Catholic homes include rich kings, poor shepherds, animals of various kinds and recently, a new cast of townspeople bearing biblical names. Of course, they all complement the central characters, the holy family: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Over the rustic structure stands at least one angel proclaiming in our imaginations the Good News of the birth of Jesus, our Savior.

The whole tableau is not described together in the Gospel accounts of the nativity, but only in pieces or in the case of animals lying down, not at all. So it might be tempting to view it merely as a nice relic from St. Francis and the 13th century: harmless but not helpful.

This would be a mistake. Christ’s birth “today in the city of David (Bethlehem)” – a moment in time and place as the Gospel of Luke records – was part of a spanine “plan of peace,” Pope Benedict XVI said last Sunday. “Today, as at the time of Jesus, Christmas is not a fairytale for children, but is God’s answer to the drama of humanity in search of real peace.”

Christmas compels people in our own time and place to act as Jesus did, the Pope added, “to bring love where there is hatred, pardon where there is injury, joy where there is sadness, and truth where there is error.”

We think of a child’s joy and faith in the holy Child born at Christmas. If you’ve forgotten what it looks like, see the photo at right of Ryan Pooler, who with his parents and four brothers will attend Christmas Mass at St. Monica Church in South Philadelphia. (Click here to see Nativity at Home Photo Gallery.)

The question is not whether one believes in the nativity story, but whether one believes in the birth of Jesus. One need not accept whether three kings arrived at the same moment as shepherds, cows and townspeople came to the feet of Jesus to believe that God became man in Christ Jesus to save all humanity. The nativity crèche places Jesus at the center of attention so that all may look upon Him with faith that is both mature and childlike. It accepts that God has become human for our sakes and that Christ will bring us into eternity with Him.

The story of Jesus’ birth is a timeless tale whose meaning transcends the secular trappings of Christmas. It gives profound meaning to greetings of “merry Christmas,” which the staff of the Catholic Standard and Times sends to all its readers.