A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

Baby Jesus in the Crèche

ROME, 4 DEC. 2007 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In setting up the outdoor or indoor Nativity scene, I am under the impression that the statue of the Infant is to be placed there "ab initio," not placed there at midnight on Christmas Eve. Is there documentation which supports that view? M.H., Woodside, New York

A: Here we are in the region of custom, and customs can vary from place to place. The choice might also depend on circumstances.

There are very few mentions of this theme in official documents. No. 111 of the Directory of Popular Piety contains the following indication:

"At Midnight Mass, an event of major liturgical significance and of strong resonance in popular piety, the following could be given prominence: [...] at the end of Mass, the faithful could be invited to kiss the image of the Child Jesus, which is then placed in a crib erected in the church or somewhere nearby."

Although this is more of a pastoral suggestion rather than a strict law, it would indicate the preference that the Christmas crib in or near a church should not be formally unveiled until the Christmas Midnight Mass.

It is also technically possible to set up the crib on the evening of Dec. 24 if a parish celebrates the Christmas vigil Mass. This possibility, while liturgically correct, is probably less effective from the point of view of popular piety, which tends to associate Christ's birth with the midnight Mass.

In some places the custom exists of using a different (usually larger) statue than that used in the crib; and the faithful are invited to kiss the image of the Child Jesus at the end of all Masses on Christmas Day.

Outside of the liturgical ambience the practice of Catholic households and schools varies widely. One family I know has the charming custom of setting up the crib in the family room but placing the Holy Family, the shepherds and the three wise men in various corners. Each day the family members move the statues a few steps closer. They place the figures in the crèche on returning from midnight Mass (except for the wise men, who arrive on Jan. 6).

There may, however, be very valid reasons for setting up the full Nativity crib before Christmas Day. For example, a Catholic store owner, school, or even a parish located in a busy thoroughfare might desire to remind busy shoppers what Christmas is really all about.

The crib thus combines the representation of a historical event with a testimony of Christian conviction that this event is a central and defining moment in human and salvation history.

In such a case, having the image of the Infant Jesus from the beginning is almost certainly to be preferred. It makes little sense to have the images of Mary, Joseph, sundry shepherds, three wise men and the occasional choir of angels gazing adoringly upon an empty haystack.

While already committed Christians might perceive the empty crib as the expectation of Christmas, the symbolism could be lost on many for whom the familiar representation of the complete Nativity scene might ignite a spark of true light amid the flimsy tinsels proclaiming "Happy Winterval."
 

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