Luke 3:10-18 (Third Sunday of Advent)
The presepio displays in the churches of Rome during the advent and Christmas seasons is a tradition that many have grown to love. The presepio is simply what we would call the belen, the nativity scene whose basic characters are Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus lying in a manger. In the most expanded form we know in the Philippines, it would also include angels, the Magi, shepherds, sheep and sometimes even a donkey. Often, the star of Bethlehem would figure prominently, especially since for Filipinos, this translates into the powerful symbol of the parol.
But there is something distinct about the three-dimensional presepi of Rome. The basic characters are the same. But it is the setting that varies from presepio to presepio, the composition of place. One can be set inside the ruins of a church, or on top of a rock, or by a mountainside, or in a rustic village dotted with houses and inns. Each setting would bring with it a distinct set of new characters beyond the usual belen personalities – a young boy drawing water from a well, an old woman with a lantern looking out into the dark, a group of friends chatting in a piazza, a little girl watching from a balcony.
The most interesting setting for me is the crowded market place. An intricate tableau is presented: a farmer carrying his produce in a sack, vendors at their booths with fruits and vegetables and hams and cheeses, wives outside their houses washing clothes, a young lad holding a chicken, a soldier on his horse, well-dressed shoppers looking for good bargains, an old man with crutches begging, some oxen, some dogs, many street lights, houses of red brick and gray shingles. On the faces of these statuettes of wood or plaster or terracotta, you might catch a smile, or a look of surprise, or worry, or just boredom! In some of these presepi, you might even see some battery-operated characters in motion – a sheep raising its head, a little boy waving to friends, a worker lifting a cart. But there is really no need for high-tech, because these scenes would always be full of life and light, rich in color, dramatic, almost seeming to be in motion even if they are not.
Then of course, in some inconspicuous enclosure in this extravaganza are Mary and Joseph and the newborn bambino, and sometimes with their usual retinue of angels, shepherds and kings.
A writer reflecting on the presepio scenes says that it seems that for the artists behind these displays, it is the great detail of these exhibitions that is most important. They almost seem to be saying that the rich experience of life and motion all around trumps the gospel event, which is simply part of a bigger story.
But for one who believes, the message is the reverse – not that the holy is pushed to the periphery by the complexities of daily life, but that the ordinariness of things is blessed by a God who has gently entered into its core. Hence, the color and the life and the vibrance. It is Emmanuel at work, bringing new hope and new excitement. He invites us to see that everything and everyone coming into our lives bear meaning, and point to a reality beyond.
It is for this reason that we can do as both the prophet Zephaniah and the apostle Paul bid us in the first two readings of this Gaudete Sunday: Rejoice because the Lord is always near! Yes, Emmanuel means God-with-us, but even more compelling is that he is also always in us, in me and in you, this God and Father who is “over all and through all and in all” (Eph.4:6). One Spanish translation of this sentence is particularly striking: “Un Dios, Padre de todo, que lo trasciende todo, y lo penetra todo, y lo invade todo.” They are words verging on violence, expressions of a powerful love able to banish all fear and anxiety, so that we can attain “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding”, and indeed rejoice.
Even more astounding is that this love is so intense that it cannot but overflow into our being able to love so many others.
On the one hand, like all the characters of the presepi, we do tend to prefer to live our little lives in our little corners, finding our regular rhythms and routines, getting comfortable with our particular quirks, coming to a point of seeming normality. Then moments come when the Lord “comes in” in a particular way, upsetting our schedules, messing things up somewhat, bringing in ideas from out of left field, frustrating projects, inviting some new characters into our ambits who sometimes even re-order our lives. We are then challenged to look again, and realize that when Emmanuel comes in, he often stretches our view of things, and we begin to see beyond ourselves, and it is at that point that we begin to allow the current of love and generosity and kindness and forgiveness to flow.
“What should we do?” ask the crowds in today’s Gospel, in order to prepare for the Lord. The Baptist’s response can be summarized in very quick phrases – share with those who do not have, be kind, be fair, be honest. Let the love of God, which is expressed so extravagantly this season, spill over into the lives of the people around us. Perhaps, this is why gift-giving is much easier to do at this time of year. We are less stingy, as we are reminded of who we are at heart – images of a God whose very essence is to give. The more we genuinely give, the less we hold on to, and the more we can really rejoice.
This homily first appeared in website of the Philippine Jesuits.