There were 56 total. Some were ceramic, others made of wood. Most were three-dimensional, but a few of the most striking were oil paintings with soft, pastel colors.
I gravitated to the ones made from recycled materials, the life sized one welded together from old car parts, the trio of cut and shaped Coca-Cola cans. The Holy Family represented 56 ways with more or less onlookers came in every color and virtually every shape. Artists from Switzerland, Portugal, Ecuador, Kenya, Palestine, Japan, Burma, Dominican Republic, Springfield, Vermont, and more all had offered up a crèche to be admired for the season leading up to Christmas. The day I visited Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, the volunteer driving the golf cart to and from the parking lot said they would have around 750 visitors just that day. 2015 marks the 13th year of the Mepkin Abbey crèche festival and people flock to see the baby Jesus and his entourage.
This was the first time I had been and it is striking. Seeing Joseph holding the baby or Mary changing the Christ child’s diaper or rhinos and giraffes rather than cows and sheep around the manger provide new ways of seeing the Incarnation. The differences, both subtle and radical, between each version of the same event highlighted the proclamation of Emmanuel, God with us, wherever, whoever we are.
As we entered the path dotted with multiple Marys, Josephs and Jesuses, the eager volunteer handed us a list with a one-sentence description of each crèche. A tiny golf (or pew) pencil was also distributed to each guest with the instruction to make notes and be sure to pick a favorite as we would be asked to name one at the end of the tour. The votes would be tallied and this year’s most popular version named. (A monastery’s version of “Dancing with the Stars”?) Pencil and paper in hand, my not-so-holy family (or at least part of it) made our way down the path and into the library, stopping to compare notes and point out details. “The sheep’s eyes are made of the bottom of light bulbs!” “Look! There is a salamander under the manager, a real one!” “Joseph seems so joyful.”
Marks were made on our Holy Family score sheet and we remarked how hard it would be to choose just one as our favorite. Once inside the library, we turned a corner and in the very center was a not the Holy Family, but an entire village – tiny, but depicted in unbelievable detail, bakers with bread, blacksmiths with anvils, fresh fruits in baskets at the market and at the very top, an angel watching over the Nativity as most of those below went unknowingly about their daily activities. As we peered into the oblivious town a volunteer came over and said, “This is a presepio.” Noting our puzzled faces she continued, “Presepio is Italian for crib and in order for a Nativity set to be a presepio three things have to be present: the devil, a child on a potty and a symbol of the crucifixion. See if you can find all three.”
The hunt was on as my most competitive, and most observant, child began to search. Within minutes she’d found all three. The devil was on his belly, with horns and a sinister expression, looking as if he was crawling out from under the foundation of a building. Above him a small child sat on a potty, his nightshirt draped on his knees. And around the very back of the village, harder to find, was a crown of thorns, the sign that would be placed above the cross, an anvil and nails. Everything there from the angel at the top to the devil at the bottom, and all of ordinary life happening in between, as the baby lay in the manager, recognized only by a very few.
The combination of extraordinary and mundane resonates this second Sunday of Advent as John the Baptist barks his message, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” But we have work to do, meals to make, children to feed and bathe, bills to pay, worries big and small to occupy our energy. Who has time to see the devil under our feet or the angels hovering over our heads? Who even knows that the Word might become flesh any moment? How can we stop long enough to recognize the salvation of God with us in our village when there is so much else happening that demands our attention?
The exceedingly good news is that our paying attention is not a prerequisite to Jesus’ coming. Prepared or not, when the time comes, birth cannot be stopped. Nonetheless, this is the season when John the Baptist calls us to expect him, to look for him, to seek him out even as we go about our daily living.
As we came to the last Nativity and stopped to turn in our pencil another volunteer asked, “Which number?” We once again said, “It is a tough choice. They are all so beautiful.” “I know,” she said, “but you have to pick one.” Each of us chose a different number but on the way home the one we kept talking about was the presepio. So many people, so much detail. Why a child on a potty? To represent our humanity? There was a rooster, isn’t that a symbol for the crucifixion, too? Did you see the bread? Maybe that’s supposed to be a symbol for Jesus. What about the devil? Was he emerging or retreating with the birth of Jesus? Finally, my observant child said, “You know why I liked that one?” “I liked that Jesus came in the middle of everyday life. I want to make one like that, but in modern time, like in an urban setting, a city, with Mary and Joseph and the baby on the street or in a car, like families now when they have nowhere to go. I think that is where we would find them today.”
Maybe seeing all those versions of the Holy Family had prepared the way to see the salvation of God this year, in our village, in the midst of whatever wilderness we find ourselves. Perhaps the best way to prepare for Christ’s coming is to assure people he will meet them wherever they are so be on the lookout even as they go about their daily living.
- Do you have a crèche at home or at church? Multiple ones? Take the time to notice the details. What is depicted and why? Anything left out that you would want to include?
- Check out some of the Nativity sets from years past at Mepkin Abbey.
- Note how the text from Luke begins with a listing of all of the leaders, both secular and religious. Why do you think this is important to the Gospel writer? How might this be relevant to us? Is it important that the story is rooted in a specific time and place? Why?
- The Old Testament lesson for this Sunday is Malachi 3:1-4. The prophet writes about the preparation being like a “refiner’s fire” and a “fuller’s soap.” What needs to be burned away or made clean in order to prepare to meet the coming Lord?
- Repentance is not a word we use much these days. Why not? How do we facilitate a season of repentance in the midst of this frenetic time of the year?
- The practice of examen is a way of reviewing our daily living and finding God in the midst of it as well as inviting repentance. Do the examen as part of your daily devotions this week.
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