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‘Modern’ Nativity tradition born 800 years ago


RENEWAL: Setting up the Nativity scene shouldn’t become routine. Two upcoming prayer services will show how to recapture the meaning of such a sacred moment. (Credit: Courtesy The Immaculata Parish)

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SAN DIEGO — How much do you know about the Nativity scene?

As it turns out, this beloved holiday tradition was popularized by St. Francis of Assisi in the Italian town of Greccio some 800 years ago. To mark this anniversary, two prayer services will be held in the Diocese of San Diego.

The bilingual services, complete with seasonal readings and carols, will take place at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 16, at Immaculate Conception Parish in Old Town, and at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 18, at Mission San Luis Rey Parish in Oceanside.

The program at both events will include readings, including the Scriptural account of the Nativity and the story of St. Francis’ famous re-enactment, and the blessing of the church’s Nativity scene.

Those who plan to attend are invited to bring a figure from their own Nativity set to be blessed, and they will receive a special prayer card for the blessing of a creche, as well as some straw that has been blessed.

Members of four branches of the Franciscan community — the Franciscan friars in their familiar brown habits, women religious from both the Franciscan Sisters and the Sisters of St. Clare, and lay Catholics known as Secular Franciscans — have collaborated in the planning of this local celebration.

Franciscan Sister Kathleen Warren said that the organizers opted to hold the prayer service before the beginning of Advent, the four-week season of preparation for Christmas, so that it might serve as “a teachable moment.”

She explained that setting up the family Nativity scene can become “so routine,” just one more thing to check off before Christmas, when it should be seen as “a holy event that we can do as a family in our own sacred space at home.”

“Our hope is that, when people set up their own crib sets (this year) … there will be this new awareness, new insight about what we’re doing,” she said.

Sister Warren explained that, while St. Francis can’t be credited with inventing the Nativity scene, he was the first to make it accessible to the common people.

During St. Francis’ time, Christmas was “not even a major feast,” she said. But he was “amazed and overwhelmed by God’s extravagant love, especially that God would be so humble as to enter into the human condition and walk with us on earth as one of us,” and he wanted “to bring this to life for the people.”

He did so by creating a living Nativity scene, including a live ox and ass. Those who turned out to his re-enactment 800 years ago weren’t passive observers, said Laura Chun, leader of the San Luis Rey Secular Franciscan Fraternity.

She compared their participation to the “experiential joy” that children have when they are allowed to help set up their family’s Nativity scene.

“That’s what Francis tapped into … and I think people responded to that,” Chun said.

Franciscan Father Vincent Mesi is the guardian of St. Vincent Friary in Mission Hills and the sacramental and spiritual leader at Immaculate Conception Parish. He sees the first Nativity at Greccio as an effort by St. Francis to show the earthiness of the first Christmas and how Jesus  accepted being born in far from ideal conditions.

He contrasted the imagery of “a beautiful Christmas card” with the reality of the Son of God being born in the midst of “a bunch of stinking animals.”

Sister Madeline Fitzgerald, a member of the Sisters of St. Clare, similarly finds “great meaning” in “the poverty, and the humility and the simplicity of Greccio.”

What occurred at Greccio 800 years ago was so profound, said Sister Warren, that it was recognized almost immediately as a holy place, soon became a shrine, and remains a popular pilgrimage site, despite its location far off the beaten path.

And, from that humble town, the tradition of the Nativity scene has spread worldwide.

“As the friars moved around the world, they took that tradition with them,” Chun said.

“When I drive through my neighborhood and … see people putting the creches in their front yard, I’m just so delighted to be a Franciscan,” she said. “It’s something real and (that) people enjoy, and it tells a story.”

The U.S. Catholic Church is in the second of a three-year Eucharistic Revival, intended to deepen Catholics’ understanding of and appreciation for the Eucharist. Sister Fitzgerald made a connection between the revival and Greccio.

“I would hope that the Nativity scene will help people appreciate the gift of the Eucharist, because, for me, every day is Christmas when we receive Jesus in the Eucharist,” she said.

Sister Fitzgerald expressed her desire “that people begin to realize the great gift that we are being given in the Eucharist, and how the Eucharist transforms us to be better people,” and that the Eucharistic Jesus is “with us to strengthen us and help us in our ups and downs of life.”

For more information and resources for celebrating Christmas at home, visit

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