Christmas Cribs in Church

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Christmas Cribs in Church

ROME, 9 DEC. 2008 (ZENIT) Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Please give me the true teaching of the magisterium in regards to the use of statues and Christmas cribs in church or in chapels. Is it true that they may not be used in church, but only in the foyer or in the entrance? — A.W., Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

A: There is not a great deal of what could be deemed "magisterium" on the Christmas crib. Many Church traditions are customary and are not manifested in official norms.

There are, however, some official guidelines that manifest Church thinking on this subject. On the universal level the Directory on Popular Piety has some pertinent indications which emphasize its importance in the family and indirectly show that placing the crib in the church is perfectly acceptable.

Thus, No. 104 states:

"The Crib

As is well known, in addition to the representations of the crib found in churches since antiquity, the custom of building cribs in the home was widely promoted from the thirteenth century, influenced undoubtedly by St. Francis of Assisi's crib in Greccio. Their preparation, in which children play a significant role, is an occasion for the members of the family to come into contact with the mystery of Christmas, as they gather for a moment of prayer or to read the biblical accounts of the Lord's birth."

This is corroborated by No. 111:

"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."

From this document we can glean that not only is there no rule against placing the Nativity scene inside a church, but that it is a long-standing custom to do so.

Although paintings, mosaics and relievos have depicted the Nativity from ancient times, it is possible that one of the earliest representations of a crib was a chapel built by Pope Sixtus III (432-440) as a representation of the cave of Bethlehem. This tiny chapel, now completely lost, was adjunct to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, whose construction was initiated by the same Pope. The relics believed to be of the original manger were first placed in this chapel in the seventh century and are now found below the basilica's main altar.

Although they have no legal authority outside of the United States, the U.S. bishops' conference guidelines on church buildings "Built of Living Stones" makes some sensible suggestions on this topic that can be applied everywhere. To wit:

"124. Plans for seasonal decorations should include other areas besides the sanctuary. Decorations are intended to draw people to the true nature of the mystery being celebrated rather than being ends in themselves. Natural flowers, plants, wreaths and fabric hangings, and other seasonal objects can be arranged to enhance the primary liturgical points of focus. The altar should remain clear and free-standing, not walled in by massive floral displays or the Christmas crib, and pathways in the narthex, nave, and sanctuary should remain clear.

"128. Objects such as the Advent wreath, the Christmas crib, and other traditional seasonal appointments proportioned to the size of the space and to the other furnishings can enhance the prayer and understanding of the parish community."

Other bishops' conferences might have issued similar guidelines which should always be taken into account.

In setting up the crèche, therefore, care must be taken to locate it in such a manner that it does not impede the altar or produce an obstacle to movements, while at the same time making it easily accessible for devotional visits.

* * *

Follow-up: Christmas Cribs in Church [12-23-2008]

In response to our piece on the placement of the Christmas crib (Dec. 9), several readers mentioned a norm in the Book of Blessings. One wrote:

"The Book of Blessings (1544), while allowing for the placement of the manger in the church, forbids its placement in the presbyterium. From my understanding this might not prohibit its placement in the sanctuary (such as on a side altar no longer used) but would not permit the crèche to be placed around or in front of the altar, chair, ambo or tabernacle. Would this be your understanding also?"

I would first of all point out that the rite of blessing a manger in church, and hence the accompanying rubric, is found in the English-language Book of Blessings but not the original Latin. Therefore, this norm is not universally applicable.

All the same, it is a sensible norm, and I think the interpretation offered by our reader is valid. It is best to keep the crib separate from the immediate sanctuary area so as to make it easier for private devotion and avoid possible occasion of distraction during Mass.

I do not believe that this norm would exclude the custom of placing an image of the infant Jesus in the sanctuary area. This custom is quite common in many places, including St. Peter's Basilica where an image of the Infant is customarily placed on a stand located at ground level in front of the high altar. Besides this image, there is also a fully populated Nativity scene in another part of the basilica and the huge display in the square outside.

Speaking about the relative authority of documents, a reader commented: "In your recent response on cribs in church, you stated that 'Although they have no legal authority outside of the United States, the U.S. bishops' conference guidelines on church buildings Built of Living Stones makes some sensible suggestions on this topic that can be applied everywhere.' This implies these guidelines have legal authority in the United States, but this is not the case. My understanding is that documents similar to this one were one reason the Holy See recently placed new restrictions on what bishops' conferences can publish without proper approvals."

I believe that our correspondent is confusing this document with its predecessor Environment and Art. The earlier document, questionable on many points, had been issued by a committee of the bishops' conference and had never been approved by the full body of bishops. In spite of this, some liturgical experts endowed it with an authority bordering on divine revelation.

On the contrary, the year 2000 document Built of Living Stones was expressly issued to replace the earlier document with something more authoritative. It was discussed and approved by the entire bishops' conference and reflects and incorporates many universal norms.

Because they are guidelines, and not particular law, this document did not require specific approval from the Holy See. Its norms, however, while lacking the legal weight that comes with legislation, are much more than a series of helpful suggestions that can be taken up or left aside according to taste.

The document allows for exceptions in particular circumstances. But because this class of document is backed by the bishops, their indications should generally be observed and applied in the spirit of obedience and in virtue of "sensus Ecclesiae," which desires to do all things as the Church desires to do them.

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