Devotion to the crib: Christmas meditations

Our Holy Father Benedict XVI, in the year of his election, explained in an Angelus message to the faithful the spiritual significance of the crib:

Following a beautiful and firmly-rooted tradition, many families set up their Crib immediately after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, as if to relive with Mary those days full of trepidation that preceded the birth of Jesus. Putting up the Crib at home can be a simple but effective way of presenting faith, to pass it on to one’s children.

The Crib helps us contemplate the mystery of God’s love that was revealed in the poverty and simplicity of the Bethlehem Grotto. St Francis of Assisi was so taken by the mystery of the Incarnation that he wanted to present it anew at Greccio in the living Nativity scene, thus beginning an old, popular tradition that still retains its value for evangelization today.

Indeed, the Crib can help us understand the secret of the true Christmas because it speaks of the humility and merciful goodness of Christ, who “though he was rich he made himself poor” for us (II Cor 8: 9).

His poverty enriches those who embrace it and Christmas brings joy and peace to those who, like the shepherds in Bethlehem, accept the Angel’s words: “Let this be a sign to you: in a manger you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes” (Lk 2: 12). This is still the sign for us too, men and women of the third millennium. There is no other Christmas.

Here our Holy Father mentioned the key word “Poverty”, indeed, the Devotion to the Crib, though already dating back to the early Christian era, was made popular by St. Francis and his sons. The Catholic Encyclopaedia tells us: “When St. Francis visited Rome in 1223, he made known to Pope Honorius III the plans he had conceived of making a scenic representation of the place of the Nativity. The pope listened gladly to the details of the project and gave it his sanction. Leaving Rome, St. Francis arrived at Greccio on Christmas Eve, when, through the aid of his friend Giovanni Velita, he constructed a crib and grouped around it figures of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, the ass, the ox, and the shepherds who came to adore the new-born Saviour.” It was the poverty of the Holy Family in the manger which captured St Francis’ attention, because it provided us a deeper understanding of the Incarnation. Thomas Celano reported him in The First Life of St. Assisi as saying: “I wish to do something that will recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem and set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he lay upon the hay where he had been placed”. And so it was done according to his specifications: “At length the saint of God came, and finding all things prepared, he saw it and was glad. The manger was prepared, the hay had been brought, the ox and ass were led in. There simplicity was honoured, poverty was exalted, humility was commended, and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem”. His sister, St. Clare, made this point clear in her letter to St. Agnes. In her first letter to St. Agnes, she wrote: “If so great and good a Lord, then, on coming into the Virgin’s womb, chose to appear despised, needy, and poor in this world, so that people who were in utter poverty and want and in absolute need of heavenly nourishment might become rich in Him by possessing the kingdom of heaven, then rejoice and be glad! Be filled with a remarkable happiness and a spiritual joy!”, and in her fourth letter to St. Agnes, she wrote the following poem (from Three Letters of St. Clare to St. Agnes):

O marvellous humility!
O astonishing poverty!
The King of the angels,
The Lord of heaven and earth is
Laid to rest in a manger!

Thus, in the same spirit Padre Pio wrote his Christmas meditation, which contains the following passages:

Far into the night, at the coldest time of the year, in a chilly grotto, more suitable for a flock of beasts than for humans, the promised Messiah – Jesus – the savior of mankind, comes into the world in the fullness of time. There are none who clamor around him: only an ox and an ass lending their warmth to the newborn infant; with a humble woman, and a poor and tired man, in adoration beside him. […] He had been expected for forty centuries; with longing sighs the ancient Fathers had implored his arrival. The sacred scriptures clearly prophesy the time and the place of his birth, and yet the world is silent and no one seems aware of the great event. Only some shepherds, who had been busy watching over their sheep in the meadows, come to visit him. Heavenly visitors had alerted them to the wondrous event, inviting them to approach his cave. […] The heavenly babe suffers and cries in the crib so that for us suffering would be sweet, meritorious and accepted. He deprives himself of everything, in order that we may learn from him the renunciation of worldly goods and comforts. He is satisfied with humble and poor adorers, to encourage us to love poverty, and to prefer the company of the little and simple rather than the great ones of the world.

To read the full text of the first English translation by Frank Rega click here.

Merciful Christmastide, in the deprived and poor we see the Glory of the Lord.

This entry was posted in Catholic Culture, Catholic Orders and Congregations, Devotion and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Devotion to the crib: Christmas meditations

  1. golden chersonnese says:

    And, Burrito, your omitting of any mention of Toads in your pensees did not pass unnoticed. 😉


  2. golden chersonnese says:

    Sorry, the post above^ is in the wrong spot.

    Teresa tells us in the words of Padre Pio: There are none who clamor around him: only an ox and an ass lending their warmth to the newborn infant; with a humble woman, and a poor and tired man , in adoration beside him. […] He had been expected for forty centuries; with longing sighs the ancient Fathers had implored his arrival.

    How well Padre Pio’s description fits the painting, which I think must be late medieval (unless you tell me who painted it, Teresa, and when)!

    Ox, ass, humble woman, tired old man and an infant that looks quite old already (although not forty centuries old, certainly) all present and accounted for. And the tired old man is too old and tired for much adoration at the moment while the ox and ass are only keeping each other warm at a distance, not the holy child.

    I can’t help noticing too the stiff way the child is lying in his crib. The crib is either uncomfortable or the child is rather anxious to get out of it and get on with it. There is a sort of ecstatic look also on the face of the child.

    Obviously, our eyes are drawn to the 40 centuries old child in the crib, encircled as he is by the other figures and structures.


  3. golden chersonnese says:

    O thank you, Teresa, it would be nice to know.

    I’d say it is later (much) than the 13th century, so it will be interesting to see.

    I’m still trying to work out what impression it has on me.

    I’m certainly fascinated by the 40 centuries old baby in his uncomfortable crib and Mary’s figure and face.

    It doesn’t look like the painter was trying to stress the poverty of the scene, as everyone seems contented enough more than resigned to the situation. Even the animals seem happy to be there!


  4. golden chersonnese says:

    Thank you, Teresa, not much later then you said and he was a disciple of Giotto!

    He painted this when he was 25 years old.

    I see you can find the whole painting here:

    When you see the whole painting you start to wonder if rabit’s Syrians had anything to do with it.

    I still am not sure what the painting is trying to express, for want of a better word. Do you, Teresa?

    It surely is not the poverty of the birth scene, do you agree? Something else as well.

    And I’ve just noticed too that Joseph seems rather preoccupied and not at all inclined to do a spot of adoring just for the moment. And Mary has a knowing look in her eye.

    Any suggestions, anybody?


  5. golden chersonnese says:

    Thanks, Teresa, the Giotto nativity was really something and you are right it’s so like the Gaddi you chose for this blog.

    You found an Orthodox painting also and you’re right, it’s very easy to see that the medieval painters were enormously influenced by the East.

    Have a look here, Teresa. It will help a lot to understand the figures “written” (as they say in the East) into the nativity icons (and medieval paintings, no doubt):

    If you had certain suspicions why Joseph was sitting apart and looking confused or down in the dumps, you were probably right!

    Interesting too that the child’s crib is also meant to represent an altar.


  6. golden chersonnese says:

    Teresa says: So according to the website Infant Jesus was “stiff”, because in Luke one read: “wrapped in bands of cloths”, and Joseph was tempted in the icon of Eastern Church by Satan through doubt. Significantly the figure of Satan was left away in the Italian version of Nativity.

    Yes, Teresa, Joseph is not being tempted in the Gaddi; he’s just looking a bit bewildered and depressed without any help at all from Old Nick. Interesting the artists and icon-writers thought of including that in their paintings originally, isn’t it? After all, it had already been settled for Joseph who the father was by the angel in Matthew 1, hadn’t it (but I suppose Joseph never saw the NT, did he)? Why then continue to show Joseph’s early worry hundreds of years later in icons and paintings?

    And the stiff 40 centuries old baby in the crib? They say that in icons the crib is also meant to represent an altar and also Jesus’ tomb, while the swaddling clothes are meant to suggest grave-clothes as well. No wonder Jesus is looking a bit old and stiff.

    Well thanks for the nice chat on nativity paintings, Teresa. I certainly enjoyed it. Maybe CP&Sers would like to refer us to nativity representations that they like and give us a bit of an introduction to them. That would be very pleasant.

    Did you know they think this painting is just one panel in a triptych? That’s why the angel on our left is looking left at shepherds (that we can’t see any more), even though we can see a couple of their sheep that have wandered over for a nosy.

    Anyway, Teresa, I managed to find a bit more about Gaddi’s Nativity at the website of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, where the painting is held, here: , where it says that:

    Taddeo Gaddi was a pupil of Giotto and worked in his studio for twenty-four years according to Cennino Cennini. While he faithfully contributed to and disseminated his master’s style he also introduced some innovations of his own. Vasari praised his use of colour which, in his opinion, was fresher and livelier than those of his master, and the fact that “after having observed and learned the easiest parts of Giotto’s work he was capable of surpassing him without difficulty in the colouring”.

    Boskovits dated this Nativity to around 1325,3 and considered it a youthful work by the artist. Giotto’s influence is evident in the composition and in a series of details that enliven the scene such as the way of arranging the holy family on descending levels that create different pictorial planes, Saint Joseph’s pose and the shape of the stable in front of the rocky landscape. The panel probably continued on the left with an Annunciation to the Shepherds a subject that is confirmed by the position of one of the small angels in the sky, the presence of the sheep and part of a staff that has been cut off at the left edge. Gaddi closed the composition on the right with the two midwives Zelomi and Salome who comment on the scene.

    The painting, which according to Boskovits would have formed part of a small altarpiece (now dismantled), has been associated with a Presentation in the Temple in a Florentine collection. This panel, published by Berenson who attributed it to Taddeo Gaddi has a similar style to the present panel and deploys a similar type of decoration in the haloes. Following Boskovits this hypothetical small altarpiece, made for private devotional purposes, would have had the present Nativity as the left wing, while The Presentation in the Temple would have been the central subject.


  7. golden chersonnese says:

    Teresa adverts: As for the temptation of St. Joseph, is it possible that this story is mentioned in the New Testament Apocrypha, for example the Proto-Evangelium of Jacob?

    Hello again, dear Teresa. Thanks for responding to my nonsense.

    But anyway . . . I don’t think Joseph’s temptations are mentioned in the Infancy Gospel of James. As you say, that apocryphal gospel is busier trying to give us the devout biography of Mary. Joseph is employed there as a means to show that Jesus’ conception was indeed the work of the Holy Spirit.

    Can’t find where the idea of Joseph being tempted came from.

    The question remains what was he tempted towards?

    I think in the icons and medieval art he was written into the ‘narrative’ of the icons and paintings to show natural human doubt concerning the whole story of Jesus’ conception. Old Nick is in the icons to bad-mouth Mary and the notion of Jesus’ being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit for the salvation of the world. This tempting of Joseph all happens, significantly, in the base lower part of the icons and is contrasted with the presence of angels congregating ecstatically in the ‘godly’ upper part of the icons around a postpartum Mary and the Holy Child, all re-affirming God’s purpose for his Incarnation. Sound good to you, Teresa?

    In contrast, I think in later Catholic theology, Joseph’s temptations are all about the natural urge to consummate his marriage with Mary, even though he is a bit of an oldie. St Joseph looks younger and sturdier in the later Catholic pictures, like this one:

    and he’s also stopped his moping and gone into adoring mode, as you can see.

    Well that’s my twopence worth, anyway.


  8. golden chersonnese says:

    Hello Teresa. I see CP&S have in fact now started a new thread on St Joseph following HF’s words on the saint given during last Sunday’s Angelus at St Peter’s (not following CP&S’s discussion about St Joseph, unhappily – I wonder if HF reads CP&S?).

    But great minds think alike!

    Yes, obviously St Joseph in the West went from resisting the temptation to doubt the Incarnation to resisting temptations of a more carnal kind! Blessed be St Joseph, her most chaste spouse.

    Either way, St Joseph helps to reveal to us the mystery of the Incarnation, wouldn’t you say? 🙂


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