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.