On the Feast of the Epiphany the scene at the Crib is completed. The shepherds have already been there since Christmas Eve. The fact that they were privileged to be the first to worship the Christ Child is surely a sign of God’s special love for the poor and weather-beaten. Now they are joined at the manger by the kings of the Orient who kneel down to present their precious gifts to the King of Kings.
Epiphany means manifestation or showing forth. This Epiphany marks the manifestation of the Word Made Flesh to the gentiles. The unique role of the Chosen People in salvation history has now reached its fulfilment. No longer will Divine Revelation be the preserve of a particular race. The Christ Child is the Universal Saviour for the whole of mankind. From now on we are all called to belong to God’s “elect”.
In the treasury of Catholic devotions, the Crib is surely one of the most loved. It was created by one of the Church’s best-loved saints, St Francis of Assisi. It was he who set up the first Crib in the hill town of Greccio in 1223. This original Praesepio was a living crib, with a real ox and an ass lent by a farmer.
The first Crib provided an alternative to the popular pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Travelling in the Holy Land during this period had become perilous for Christians, who were likely to be enslaved or murdered.
St Francis gained papal approval for his Crib and the devotion quickly spread across Italy and beyond. It also served an invaluable theological function. We think of the age of St Francis as the “Age of Faith”; but it was also a period when the poison of heresy threatened to pollute the pure milk of Catholic doctrine.
In the modern age there has been a tendency to play down Christ’s divinity. Some Christians who were youthful in the 1960s still seem to think of Our Lord in terms of a super-human social activist – a happy-clappy Che Guevara, brandishing a tambourine rather than a semi-automatic rifle. During the Middle Ages the Church had to fight against the opposite heresy. In their emphasis on Our Lord’s godly nature, there were those who went so far as to deny the reality of His humanity. These dualists were reluctant to accept that God could allow Himself to be “contaminated” by union with human flesh.
This was a serious error. We are able to be saved because Christ unites our human nature with the Divine Nature within His own person. In the words of St Gregory Nazianzus: “What has not been assumed has not been healed; it is what is united to his divinity that is saved.” Unless Our Lord’s human nature is real, then we are still in our sins.
It was to counter the dualist heresy of the Cathars that St Dominic promoted the Rosary in France. St Francis’s Crib had a similar value in Italy. These two great devotions are complimentary. Both are designed to draw us into a more profound meditation on the reality of the Incarnation.
In the Crib, we see how our Lord’s flesh is tender and vulnerable. The rough sides of the manger look as if they might graze those soft little hands – the same hands that will one day be nailed to the rough wooden arms of the Cross. Reflecting on the Resurrection and the Ascension in the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, we remind ourselves how that flesh was raised and taken up into Heaven to be glorified forever.
Once we do begin to appreciate the implications of the Incarnation, then our relationship with the world around us must be deeply affected. The Christ Child comes not only to redeem our souls but also our bodies. His Incarnation, moreover, makes possible the sanctification of the material universe. Oil, water, bread and wine are all able to become instruments of sacramental grace. Dates, places and objects become sacred through contact with the Word Made Flesh. The Holy Land is truly holy because it contains the stones that were trodden on by His feet.
We also need to sanctify our imaginations. We live in a world that bombards us with images. Many of these images are degrading and destructive. Engage with them and they will drag us into an abyss of selfishness and sin. The devil knows that once he has control of our imaginations then it is easy for him to reach down and take possession of our hearts. So we should make every effort to fill our imagination with pure and holy images that elevate our minds by meditating on that wondrous scene of love and worship at the Crib so that it fills our hearts.
Christmas begins on the eve of 24th December, and it continues all the way to the Epiphany. It is a season in which the eyes of all children should sparkle with wonder. Whatever age we are, we should all come to the Crib like little children, with open hearts.
Bethlehem means House of Bread. The manger is a feeding trough. The Holy Child came in His Flesh so that He could feed us with His Flesh. An ideal time to visit the Crib is at the end of Mass, after receiving Holy Communion. Kneel down with Our Lady and St Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi, the ox and the ass. Give thanks, and pray that God will make 2013 a year of blessings for us all.