A message from Father Nick 92

Looking at the Crib (I)

Cribs, as we well know, are both universal and varied. A diocesan colleague remembers in his first parish several Vietnamese families who came to Wales during the war-torn nineteen-seventies. Very attached to their new home, they asked if they could erect the parish crib each year. Against a high sanctuary wall, they would set up a large tent-like structure with one rather curious feature: despite its impressive height, the opening was low to the ground. It meant that children could access it directly, but adults would have to approach it on their knees – a faith lesson my friend never forgot.

In Greccio in 1223, St Francis of Assisi too was thinking deeply about his faith when he made the first manger scene with his friars and the townspeople and a live ox and ass. At midnight mass he assisted as deacon and spoke of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, pronouncing the word “Bethlehem” like a bleating lamb. Greccio seems to have been blessed by the experience. Even today it retains a magical beauty, and it houses a permanent museum of cribs from all parts of the world, keeping a privileged link with one of our best loved traditions.

So many currents of meaning flow through this particular tradition. The Vietnamese in Wales, knew that Christ was born in unity with all the world’s displaced. And even before the human participants arrived at the manger, the world had been opening itself to an act of unique wonder. Let’s just look again at elements we’ve noticed during the past few weeks.

The dimension of spirit, the unseen Transcendent in our lives – glimpsed in the 2ND Advent preface to our Eucharistic Prayer as “Angels and Archangels, …Thrones and Dominions, and… all the hosts and Powers of heaven”. This is Gabriel revealing God’s purpose to Mary; the Angel bringing Good News to the shepherds; the heavenly Christmas choir singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to those who enjoy his favour; and the seraphim in Isaiah screening God’s greatness with their “Holy, holy, holy”. Our lives are empty without this dimension, given new force by Christ’s birth.

And then there is the created world with its elements and material creatures – like the oxen in Thomas Hardy’s poem. These, too, can hold a spiritual significance, and they are summed up for us by the ox and ass we place inside our cribs. As we have seen before, neither Matthew nor Luke describes an ox or ass as being present at the scene, but they have a deep, ancient, symbolic connection. They are “borrowed” from the opening words of Isaiah:

The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib;

[But]…my people do not understand.”

In other words, these are highly significant crib figures, challenging our inertia and calling us to a new kind of awareness of the story to come.