I love the way in which 'bringing out' the nativity grounds me in the Matthean and Lukan gospel accounts of Jesus' birth, reminds me of the humble circumstances into which Jesus was born, and illustrates the possibility we have to engage with this story. Even more importantly, this tradition highlights the importance of Jesus' birth, and his relevance in the world today. This is especially epitomised in the Italian depictions of the nativity (called 'presepe') which often feature modern settings (e.g., a pizza oven!) or highly contextualised characters. If you ever get to visit an exhibition of presepe at Christmas time in Italy, you will note that they are oft-stylised according to their place of origin. More locally, you will see presepe markets everywhere, selling every conceivable item for extending family nativity sets. I remember asking someone in Italy about this, and they responded:
We make the scenes to reflect our current culture, to remind us that God is with us today. That this child, Jesus, Immanuel, is just as relevant in 2010 as he was two millennia ago
The road ahead after the nativity would not be an easy one for Jesus (Matthew makes this overwhelmingly clear in chapter 2). Celebrating his birth, and engaging with this story reminds us that God did come to earth - in the most vulnerable form possible. However, God did not just remain a child. In fact, the gospel accounts point to the identity of Jesus even amidst these most humble of circumstances. And that's kind of the point of the nativity - at least to me. It's not necessarily about creating a scene of historical accuracy - it's about being reminded of the true identity of this child, his universal relevance for the entire world across time, and the tangible reality of his presence with us today.
Some examples from Italy (Rome and Bassano Del Grappa), Germany (Munich, Dresden, and Cologne), Belgium (Brugge), and the Czech Republic (Prague):
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