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December 16, 2017

Put the bambino in

By Fr Martin Sirju

Confusion reigns today regarding creches as to whether such creches constructed during the season of Advent should contain the bambino (Baby Jesus). Devout Catholics have encountered the creche in offices of the Church, in secular institutions and in public. What is to be done? Should the bambino be included or excluded?

In many parishes there prevails the practice inside the church of leaving out the bambino and that is quite understandable. Decorators may begin with simply a cave-like or house-like structure and add figures each week of Advent. The logic behind this is to keep in sync with the liturgical rhythm of Advent: the closer we are to Christmas the more pieces we put in. Then at the Christmas Eve Mass a little child walks at the front of the procession, and places the bambino in the creche. It is all so touching to many and echoes Isaiah 11:6: “a little child shall lead them”.

Even in this pious tradition there is a chronological anachronism. The figures we place in the creche are nowhere present in the early Advent readings—there are no wise men (magi), no animals, no shepherds, no Joseph but only Mary who is mentioned on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The figures we put in the creche are Christmas figures except the season has not yet arrived. Logically there should be a John the Baptist who is mentioned twice in the Advent readings but he is not there. He is not the type of figure we would want children to see in the creche anyway—that locust-eating lunatic! This does not mean the practice should be discontinued since liturgy is not only governed by theology but by emotion as well and one can make concessions to the other.

The public creche, however, is another matter. Here we are not dealing with liturgy but with evangelisation. We want to tell the world that this Messiah as Singing Francine sang—“he come for one, he come for all”. How on earth do we expect to achieve this if we leave off from the public creche the very person “who come for one, who come for all”? Around Advent, in anticipation of Christmas, we want to proclaim from the mountain top Jesus has come, He has opened the floodgates of love and mercy leading to the Father, and who conveys that message better than a baby who is a symbol of the Father’s eternal love. It is fitting therefore that the bambino should be there in the public creche. And so I have him in mine on the Promenade.

There is another point. The eminent Catholic scholar, the late John Henry Cardinal Newman said faith must not be overly rational because then it gets cold and rigid; nor must it be too emotional for then it becomes superstitious. Note he did not exclude the emotions; he just said faith must not become overly so, as tends to happen with Marian devotion. When a public creche is in reach of the average person, emotion impels them to touch first and foremost Baby Jesus. They don’t head for Mary or Joseph, nor the reverent magi, nor the shepherds or the curious animals, but Baby Jesus. I remember as a child, on my way to Mass in the Advent Season, my mother would stand before the simple creche outside St Patrick’s RC Church, Fullerton, and touch first of all Infant Jesus. I don’t see why our preoccupation with liturgy, which is not an outside-the-church affair, should stifle the natural, emotional, evangelical intent of the public creche. It’s a time to show off Jesus, so show him off!

Antiquity scholar Carolyn Bynum Walker makes in interesting point in her book Jesus as MotherStudies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. She notes the Church goes through its own ebb and flow from time to time regarding theology and devotion. When theology becomes too rigid, academic, and aloof the people develop their own theology from below. She writes: “In contrast, eleventh and twelfth century writers began to stress Christ’s humanity, both in affective and sentimentalised responses to the gospel story (e.g. the devotion of Mary of Oignies and the Christmas creche) … The new devotion to Christ’s humanity was also at least implicitly a shift in theological emphasis from atonement-resurrection and last judgement to creation and incarnation” (pp 16–17).

We live in a very cerebral age, dominated by science and technology, social media and the ‘i’ technologies. It pushes us into ourselves, into our iPhones. We need a touch of the emotional and sentimental to pull us out of that virtual world to cast our eyes at reality—a setting of warmth, of family life, good neighbours, kind visitors, harmony with nature, and with a child at the centre reminding us of our own need for love and to be loved.

Why should we deny people of all faiths or none the opportunity for the spark of divine light to touch their minds and hearts? The purpose is evangelical people. Build the outdoor creches before Christmas … and make sure to include the bambino in it!