A beautiful document released by Pope Francis in December 2019 has received relatively little attention. Admirabile Signum deals with the meaning and importance of the nativity scene. He opens by reminding us how the enchanting image of the crèche never ceases to arouse amazement and wonder, both in the young and adults.
He describes it as a form of living Gospel, offers some history of the crèche, and invites us into a place of prayer. Francis encourages readers to continue the age old tradition of families and communities preparing the scene in the days before Christmas. He suggests that we allow our imagination and creativity to come to the fore, and to allow children to find ways of carrying on this tradition.
Pope Francis offers a good summary of the birth and growth of the tradition of the nativity scene, starting with Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223. He identifies an important symbolic connection, first offered by Saint Augustine, between the hay in the manger and “the bread come down from heaven” (John 6:41). Francis points out that the first nativity scene includes “everyone gathered in joy around the cave, with no distance between the original event and those sharing in its mystery.”
In mentioning that first re-enactment, Francis is inviting us to a contemplative stance as we ponder the nativity scene. At one point in the short apostolic letter he offers his own fruits of the contemplation on the various elements and persons that have found their way into the Bethlehem scene – the geography and landscape and architecture, the major players, the shepherds, the Magi, and the many other characters that people have added to the scene over the centuries.
His text reminded me of how often over the years I have used the Christmas homily to hold up the various elements of the scene and invite all of us to reflect on the connection between the players and our lives. For instance, by adding the local townspeople carrying gifts, I ask what gift we would bring to Bethlehem.
Those who have prayed with the nativity contemplation in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises will be comfortable with the message of the Pope and the methodology he is suggesting. The contemplation involved makes use of the power of the imagination to evoke the Gospel scene in such a manner that we are fully engaged with it.
There can be powerful, or even simple, spiritual fruits and graces. He reminds us that the nativity scene allows us to touch and feel the poverty that God’s Son took upon himself in the Incarnation.
Francis ponders why the crèche evokes such wonder and moves us so deeply. Many of his questions for reflection cut to the heart of our lives and the mystery that is evoked by the birth of this simple baby.
He reminds us that it doesn’t matter how the crèche is actually arranged. He says that what matters is that it speak to our lives.
There are sections of the letter that are quite beautiful. The document is worth making part of our Advent or Christmas reading. You can find it here: