Solemnity of the Nativity of our Lord
On this special night, we take time to focus our attention on the belens we put up weeks ago. We bend low to gaze on beloved familiar characters usually set in an animal shed or a cave—the newborn babe, mother Mary and guardian Joseph, the adoring three kings and the kneeling shepherds, plus of course, the resident cows, the kings’ camels and the shepherds’ what-else-but sheep with a meek lamb to boot.
But in the Italian and Spanish belen traditions, there is much more. The setting of Jesus’ birth is surrounded with, almost to the point of being even drowned by, scenes of daily life with characters of all ages, shapes and diverse occupations. We find mothers around the house doing their often-unappreciated chores, men drinking and soon enough fighting, and playing children running after each other. We identify those on top and those at the margins. There is a curious mix of the serious and the comic. In the Spanish version, there is even, forgive the profanity, a caganero, a man caught with his pants down while doing what we would call a “major operation” and with the face of the most infamous celebrity of that year (Any nominations?).
Far from being just an instance of Italian baroque chutzpah or of Spanish earthiness, their belens may be on to something we could easily miss. They seem to be pointing out that the signal birth we celebrate tonight took place in the midst of the world, a world at that time occupied by foreign Roman troops, dominated by corrupt Jewish political and religious leaders, and divided into those considered clean and those unclean. Truth to tell, a world not unlike ours.
Into such a world was Jesus born as a sign from heaven. Hence we put the shining star and many angels buzzing around in our belens. The Christmas stories of this birth borrowed from the prophets of the Hebrew Scripture and described by Luke and Matthew’s Gospels portray this signal birth in dramatic and glowing terms. Isaiah, Zachary, the shepherds, and Mary of course see visions from above; Joseph and the three kings have dreams from on high. This child is named Emmanuel, God-with-us, and called “wonder-counselor, God-hero, Father-forever, prince of peace”.
But if we are not attentive, all this glitter could overshadow the truth that this heavenly sign is the simple birth of a child. In fact, in Isaiah’s book, the sign from God was that King Ahaz’ wife would give birth. Only with its translation from Hebrew into Greek did this become a virgin birth. All this stress on the heavenly and the miraculous expresses the undeniable presence and work of the all-loving and all-mighty God, but it could transport the story of Christmas into Harry Potter’s world marked by magic and wizardry. When what we have in this story of a simple birth is that most unimaginable and therefore most miraculous—that the human is divine. There is a downright worldliness and earthiness in putting the birth of Jesus in the midst of our world.
And the very life and preaching of Jesus, the full-grown Son of God and Son of Mary, confirm all this. His message, certainly not out of this world and sharp in its simplicity, is of feeding the hungry, eating with those look down upon, visiting those without freedom, comforting the sorrowful, etc.—in other words, doing to one another what is decent, that which is fitting, because each one and every life matters, regardless of color, status, gender, age, even of holiness or the criminal lack thereof.
This is what the signal birth of Jesus calls us to, what it offers us by way of his example: to be human, to be humane with one another, to be who we are, certainly not by our own power and righteousness, but always and ever with Emmanuel. This seemingly minimal and everyday call is indeed the loftiest, because it is an invitation to be divine, subverting the serpent’s temptation to Adam and Eve that “you will be like God.” And with our response to this call, perhaps our world will be transformed from day to day.
This year the belen set at the Vatican plaza captures this message. The central scene made in Malta near Italy has the familiar characters and features, but on one side is a replica of a boat of refugees fleeing violence and hunger and made from actual scraps from boats wrecked while crossing the Mediterranean sea, and on the other side, are stone fragments including a cross from the earthquake-destroyed St. Benedict’s church in central Italy, and a towering Christmas tree decorated with balls designed by children with cancer. Here the birth of Jesus takes place in our world and gathers our humanity.
On this most holy night, when you look at your belen at home and in church, think of what more it needs to truly express the heavenly sign of Jesus’ birth?