Away in a Manger

Each year we see the familiar nativity scene during the Christmas season.  It is a reminder of the “reason for the season” which is the birth of our Savior.  I have fond memories as a child of being involved in my Christmas church play about Christ’s birth in the manger (always cast as one of the shepherds).

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with staging the first nativity scene in 1223.  It is believed that St. Francis was first inspired with this idea after visiting the historical place of Christ’s birth on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and noting the humble stable in a Bethlehem cave and the associated poverty it represented.  St. Francis—who was radically devoted to the virtue of evangelical poverty—created the original nativity scene to overcome the rampant greed and materialism prevalent at that time in Italy.  Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio.  He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.”
The nativity scene’s popularity took off from there.  Within a couple of centuries, nativity scenes had spread throughout Europe.  Later scenes began incorporating dioramas and life actors, and the cast of characters gradually expanded beyond Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, to sometimes include an entire village.  In 1291 Pope Nicholas IV commissioned statues to create the first permanent Nativity scene in the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major.  Ever since, Nativity scenes in all shapes and sizes have been created throughout the world and they are one of the most popular Christmas traditions.

The familiar cast of characters relied upon today—the three wise men and the shepherds—is not biblically accurate.  Nowhere in the Bible do shepherds and wise men appear together.  Further, there is no mention of donkeys, oxen, cattle or other farmyard friends in conjunction with Jesus’ birth.  However, the manger scene remains a powerful representation and reminder of the birth of the King of kings in a lowly manger.

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