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Evangelizing Through Nativity Scenes

Trent Horn

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Advent is upon us! In this episode Trent talks about the origin of the Nativity scene as well as how it can help us evangelize both the non-religious and even our Protestant brothers and sisters.


Welcome to The Counsel Of Trent podcast, a production of Catholic Answers.

Can you believe that it’s December already? Man, this year just flew right by. Welcome to The Counsel Of Trent podcast. I’m your host, Catholic Answers apologist and speaker, Trent Horn, and I’m so glad you’re stopping in with me today because I really enjoy Advent, the Christmas season. It’s one of my favorite holiday seasons. I remember one of my favorite memories growing up, related to Christmas, well, one is when I opened up my Super Nintendo.

I mean, I remember sitting in my parents’ house in Encinitas, California, and the light was streaming in through the bay window, and there was that good, old Super Nintendo box under the tree, and playing that with my brother and my sister, and just the family element there. I remember that warmth and that charm of Christmas, and maybe you have similar stories as well, but probably my favorite memory of Christmas though is after I was … Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, given the gift of faith, coming to see the importance of encountering Jesus and the mass during my R.C.I.A. process. I wasn’t even Catholic yet, being able to go to Catholic mass. I went to the midnight mass. I think it was at 10:00, but it was on the late night mass on Christmas Eve.

I went there, and I remember the church was decorated with wreaths, and lights, and after the mass was over, going out into the courtyard and just saying the warmest Merry Christmas I’d ever said in my entire life, so I love Christmas. I love this time of year. I love Advent. I love preparing for Christmas. We’ve even got our little nativity set set up in the living room.

It’s got the Magi, it’s got the animals, it’s got Mary, it’s got Joseph, but there’s one thing that it’s missing. It’s got a manger, but it doesn’t have Jesus in it, and Matthew, he always asks us, “Can I put Baby Jesus in the manger?” We say, “No. It’s not time. We’re waiting for Jesus to come. It’s a time of waiting and preparation, and on Christmas, you get to put Baby Jesus into the manger.”

That’s what I want to talk about today, is evangelizing with nativity scenes. I think nativity scenes are a great way that we can evangelize and show people the real meaning of Christmas and understand why this time of year is so important. Another reason I wanted to bring this up was the … What reminded me of this was a few days ago, my sister-in-law, Laura’s sister came and visited in town and she brought my niece, her little daughter who’s not even one years old yet, and we took her around San Diego, a nice respite from the weather in the Midwest, and we went to … There’s a lot of great neighborhoods here that do Christmas lights and things like that. One of my favorites here in San Diego is Merritage Court.

I think the street name is Merritage Court, but every year, it gets transformed into [Mary-tage 00:03:06] Court, and there’s all these lights and decorations, and super fun to see, but nearly all of them are secular. I mean, there’s still, there’s a warmth and a magic to it and it’s neat to see, like one of them was a Star Wars Christmas, and you’ve got Darth Vader with a Santa hat on and a replica of the Death Star, and I was saying to Matt like, “Matt, look down there. Look down there, and the figurines,” and I said, “That is when the empire attacked the Rebel base at Hoth, and that’s something when you’re a little bit older, I’m going to introduce to you because it’s very important, but not as important of course as Jesus.” As we walked down Merritage Court, I was really happy to see there was one house on the street that was really classy. I mean, it was one of those houses that it wasn’t even the multi-colored Christmas lights.

It’s all the gold, like the bright amber, like the white light Christmas. You know what I’m talking about. They look kind of like bright yellow, and it’s got the angels outside, and classy was the best word to describe it. Right there in the front was just a little nativity scene with the angels behind it. I was very happy to see that because a lot of us when Christmas comes around each year, we get sucked into Christmas and we lose sight of what’s so important about it, especially like gifts and Santa Claus.

I’m not going to rip on Santa Claus. This is not a controversial episode, though this past Sunday at our church, we attend a Byzantine liturgy. We celebrated Saint Nicholas Day, and one of the volunteers dressed up as Saint Nicholas, and the kids got to take pictures with him, and we put out little shoes in front of Matt’s room, and the story of Saint Nicholas that he left … I think the real account was that Saint Nicholas threw bags of gold through a poor man’s window so he wouldn’t have to sell his daughters into prostitution. Not as family-friendly of a Christmas story.

Heavy themes indeed, but I think it’s also been told that for poor children, Saint Nicholas put little candies and coins into their shoes, so we put … That’s one thing you could always try with your kids, especially next year when Saint Nicholas Day comes back around again, put their shoes in front of their bedroom door and put little candies and little coins, say, “This reminds us of Saint Nicholas, someone who wanted to be just like Jesus and went and helped the poor, and he lived in this time and in this place in the village of, I think it’s Myra about, gosh, about 1,600 years ago,” so there … I do believe in having magic, not of course dark, occultish magic, but a sense of awe and wonder during the Christmas season. I’m not a big fan of Santa Claus, but that is a story for another podcast entirely. I was happy to see that nativity scene, and we started setting up ours. In our neighborhood, we just set up a little …

It’s a silhouette cutout of Mary and Joseph and the manger, and what I do is I put … Behind it, I light it up with little solar floodlights, and then I project on the wall of the house, and I have a little snow projector, so in front of our house for Christmas, we just got the nativity scene. It’s lit up with the little floodlights, and you’ve got the little projectors that looks like the snow is falling on Mary and Joseph. I know you’ll drive through our neighborhood to go and look at lights, and I hope that that is just a little thing that I can do to remind them this is what makes Christmas so special, that we’re worried about giving gifts to one another, but the reason we give gifts is because God gave us the greatest gift imaginable, His Son given to us, lying in swaddling cloths in a manger. In fact, the manger is so important to evangelism and sharing the true meaning of Christmas with others, that Pope Francis wrote an apostolic letter on the subject called Admirabile signum. He went to Greccio, which is the mountain village in Italy, where St. Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene or crib scene in 1223.

Nativity scenes are not something that the church has celebrated throughout all of its history, but about halfway through its history, in the 13th century, St. Francis created this first scene. It was actually first created, I think with life-size actors to, just people reenacting this scene in the town square, and then later, artisans adapted it to create the little nativity scenes to have little Mary, Joseph, Jesus figurines, to set up in people’s homes or to put outside of their homes. I want to read this to you, and then talk a little bit more about how we can use nativity scenes to share the faith, and also how to answer objections that people have to the nativity and to the use of nativity scenes and statues to depict important elements of our faith. This is part of what Pope Francis writes in his letter. He says, “Fifteen days before Christmas, Francis asked a local man named John to help him realize his desire to, ‘Bring to life the memory of that babe born in Bethlehem, to see as much as possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of His infant needs, how He lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, He was laid upon a bed of hay’.”

“At this, his faithful friend went immediately to prepare all that the Saint had asked. On 25 December, friars came to Greccio from various parts, together with people from the farmsteads in the area, who brought flowers and torches to light up that holy night. When Francis arrived, he found a manger full of hay, an ox and a donkey. All those present experienced a new and indescribable joy in the presence of the Christmas scene. The priest then solemnly celebrated the Eucharist over the manger, showing the bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist. At Greccio there were no statues, the nativity scene was enacted and experienced by all who were present.”

“This is how our tradition began, with everyone gathered in joy around the cave, with no distance between the original event and those sharing in its mystery. Thomas of Celano, the first biographer of Saint Francis, said that from that nativity scene in 1223, ‘Everyone went home with joy.'” The Pope goes on to say, “With the simplicity of that sign, Saint Francis carried out a great work of evangelization. His teaching touched the hearts of Christians and continues today to offer a simple, yet authentic means of portraying the beauty of our faith.” The Pope also says that the nativity scene is, “It’s a work of art, and so we’re allowed to take artistic license in order to cultivate the imagination and stir the heart towards understanding the joy of the Christmas season.”

He says, “Children, but adults too often love to add to the nativity scene other figures that have no apparent connection with the gospel accounts, yet each in its own way, these fanciful additions show that in the new world, inaugurated by Jesus, there is room for whatever is truly human and for all God’s creatures. From the shepherd to the blacksmith, from the baker to the musicians, from the women carrying jugs of water to the children at play, all this speaks of the everyday holiness, the joy of doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way, born whenever Jesus shares His divine life with us,” so we can take some artistic license. Now, I don’t like when people take nativity scenes and they do so in a secular or profane way. I think, for example, there’s hipster Joseph, hipster Mary, where Joseph is taking a selfie and Mary is wearing a somewhat immodest outfit next to Jesus. I don’t know.

Don’t do that, but you’re allowed to take some artistic license with the scenes, such as adding figures that were probably not present at Jesus’ actual birth, and actually a fair number of the figurines there would not have been present at Jesus’ birth. It’s just part of our tradition, a pious tradition that we’ve received to help us picture the image in our mind. For example, the animals probably were not there, or at least are not mentioned in the biblical accounts. A good book, if you want to read a dive deeper in the infancy narratives, a good classic would be Pope Benedict XVI 2012 book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. He actually talks about how the animals weren’t present necessarily, so not described, but there’s still an important symbolism going on and that the animals, when we show a nativity scene, the animals put forward. It’s not just something cute to add, there’s a deep and rich Christian symbolism there. Let me read you an excerpt of Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives by Pope Benedict XVI.

This is what he says, “St. Augustine drew out the meaning of the manger, using an idea that at first seems almost shocking, but on closer examination, contains a profound truth. The manger is the place where animals find their food, but now, lying in the manger, is He who called Himself the true bread come down from heaven, the true nourishment that we need in order to be fully ourselves. This is the food that gives us true life, eternal life. Thus, the manger becomes a reference to the table of God, to which we are invited so as to receive the bread of God. From the poverty of Jesus’s birth emerges the miracle in which man’s redemption is mysteriously accomplished.”

“The manger, as we have seen, indicates animals, who come to it for their food. In the Gospel there is no reference to animals at this point, but prayerful reflection, reading Old and New Testaments in the light of one another, filled this lacuna at a very early stage by pointing to Isaiah 1:3:, ‘The ox knows its owner, and the ass is its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people does not understand.'” He goes on to talk about how the importance of these animals and their symbols in the Old Testament. He says, So the manger has in some sense become the Ark of the Covenant, in which God is mysteriously hidden among men, and before which the time has come for ‘Ox and ass,’ humanity made up of Jews and Gentiles, to acknowledge God.” He says, “Through this remarkable combination of Isaiah 1:3, Habakkuk 3:2, Exodus 25:18-20, and the manger, the two animals, the ox and the ass, now appear as an image of a hitherto blind humanity, which now, before the child, before God’s humble self-manifestation in the stable, has learned to recognize Him.”

He says, “Christian iconography adopted this motif at an early stage. No representation of the crib is complete without the ox and the ass.” To bring from this, that in our faith, that when we adopt various symbols in our faith that weren’t necessarily present in biblical accounts, God is able to use these different symbols, these earthly symbols in order to share spiritual insights with us. I mean, I’ve mentioned this in the podcast numerous times, I wear a wedding ring. It has an important symbol to it.

A wedding ring is unending. The bond with my wife is unending in this life until either of us leaves this life, and so it’s a very important and fitting symbol of our marriage, even though wedding rings or marriage rings are not found in the Bible. Much the same way when we look a nativity scene, we imagine the animals coming to their trough for food, and in it is Jesus, who is His flesh is true food for us. He is the food that nourishes us and gives eternal life, that even these lowly animals, you imagine them almost like kneeling, and that even the animals would recognize the Lord of the universe that created them was now dwelling in their midst. Actually, I love …

I have this little book at home I read to Matthew and Thomas, and it’s about a bunch of animals preparing their little farmhouse, and they’re like, “Look who’s coming? Guess who’s coming? He’s almost here,” and it turns out at the end, that it’s Mary, Joseph and Jesus, and all the animals are putting it together. To recap, when we put out a nativity scene, we want people to focus on the fact that God gave us the greatest gift He ever could, His son at Christmas. It allows people to remember that Jesus is the focus of Advent, the focus of the Christmas season, even if there are other elements in the nativity scene that we take some artistic license with, like the presence of animals that were not described in the biblical accounts, that even still, as Pope Benedict says there’s a rich symbolism there, that even those animals represent humanity itself coming to recognize its sovereign Lord that now dwells in their midst, now literally tabernacles, dwells among us.

Also, another common element in the nativity scene that is not strictly historically accurate is the presence of the Magi. Now first, the Bible does not say that there were three wise men. It talks about the wise men, the Magi I from the East, bringing gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, and because there’s three gifts, we often symbolize them with three Magi, but the Bible itself doesn’t explicitly say that there were three. There could have been three kings of the East, three Magi from the East as the tradition we’ve received says so, but they might have also had attendance or people who accompany them and help them on this journey that might also have been present when they came to give their gifts to the young Jesus. However, the Bible doesn’t say that the Magi were present when Jesus was born.

Matthew 2:1 says, “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.” As I write in my book, Hard Sayings, Matthew never says that the Magi I were present at Jesus’ birth. He only says that in the days of Herod the king, the magi came to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem. Another clue that when the Magi came, in the accounts, it says they came into the house. They came into the house to see Mary and Joseph, who were either permanently dwelling in Bethlehem until they later fled to Egypt to escape King Herod, or they were maybe temporarily residing there while they’re away from their home in Nazareth, whatever the case may be.

When Mary and Joseph were there and the Magi arrived, Jesus was probably older. It’s not when He was a newborn baby. He was probably about somewhere between one to two years old, and that makes sense of an important detail in the gospel accounts, because you remember the massacre of the Holy innocence, that Herod ordered that all of the children under the age of two in the town of Bethlehem to be slaughtered, and Jesus and the Holy Family narrowly escaped this. they’re warned in a dream to flee, but if the Magi had went and visited a newborn Jesus, and then went six miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to report on this, so they failed to report back to Herod, and it’s just a few miles away and they went and saw a newborn baby, Herod would have just said, “Well, kill all the newborn babes, not all of the toddlers.” The fact that even children under the age of two, one to two years old where the subject of the slaughter of the innocence provides evidence that when the Magi went to see Jesus, He was not a newborn baby.

He was probably more of a toddler, so they were not present there at His birth, but once again, it’s completely appropriate to include them as part of the story within a nativity scene, that the nativity scene almost compresses the entire Christmas story, so we see the Magi, we see the animals, Mary, Jesus, Joseph, everything present there to give almost like a summary of the nativity story in one special scene to be able to share with other people, and to remind people that the important thing that while we do give gifts to one another, what are the gifts that we bring to Jesus? Now, Jesus of course, doesn’t need gold, frankincense, or myrrh from us. Maybe Jesus needs from us our time, us spending time with Him in prayer, to dwell in communion with Him, to receive Him in the Eucharist. What are we giving to Jesus either through prayer and worship or maybe through acts of service, acts or works of mercy for other people? What are the gifts that we bring to Him? The Magi are a sign of that and remind us of that in the nativity scene.

I also think that when it comes to evangelism, nativity scenes are a great way to share our faith with Protestants, especially Protestants who are uncomfortable with certain acts of Catholic devotion, so you know that there are the old Protestant charge like, “Oh, Catholics worship statues, and the Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not make a graven image,'” and either this time a year or anytime a year, you can say, “Hey, what do you think about nativity scenes? Do you think it’s wrong for us to make a little image to show of …” A lot of Protestant churches have Jesus lying in a manger or … There are some Protestant churches that are super-duper rigid, and so they don’t have images of any kind. Though, what’s ironic is often, even in these churches that are very against “Graven images,” they usually do have at least one graven image of something on earth that is associated with God, the cross He was crucified on, that even in many of these Protestant churches that are against graven images, they have a cross in the front of the church that people will kneel in front of and they will pray before this cross that reminds them of Jesus who was crucified, that they’ll say the cross, because Jesus is no longer on the crucifix, His corpus is not present on it.

It reminds them more of the resurrection than the crucifixion, but even there, they still have an image, but a lot of other Protestants will, they get uncomfortable at kneeling in front of a statue in a Catholic church of Jesus, or Mary, or a saint, and yet, they’re willing to kneel or pay homage to a nativity scene. You could say, “Look, just as this nativity scene, you don’t worship the Baby Jesus of this nativity scene like it’s actually Jesus, and it has some sort of idolatrous powers or something like that. Just as you see it as a reminder of a sacred event and a sacred person in salvation history, we feel the same way for images, statues of the Holy men and women of God, and of God who has become Man because God literally made Himself into an icon. He made Himself Man. It is possible for us to see and behold who God is,” and so we can do that through representations of Jesus, knowing that we don’t worship the image itself, but it is a way for us to connect with the reality behind the image and give that reality, whether it’s God who deserves the highest form of worship possible or the saints, God’s creations who pray for us and lead us to God that deserve veneration and respect, but not the worship that is given to God alone.

Finally, I want to end with an article from The Gospel Coalition. This is a Protestant website, but it’s an article from a few years ago by Alistair Begg, and it really does summarize a lot that even Protestants see that we need these visual representations of our faith, the importance of material representations for us to connect our hearts to these divine realities, especially in an increasingly secular age. Begg wrote an article called Why I Changed My Mind on Nativity Scenes. I’ll read you some portions of it. He said, “I used to be dismissive of nativity scenes, you know the sort, the perfect arrangements of little figurines that start popping up in mall displays and outside churches this time of year.”

He goes on to say that they’re not realistic, that, “Aw, that’s cute there, but they don’t really connect you to the importance of the Christmas season.” He says, “I thought there was nothing in a nativity scene that really says, ‘Behold,’ so there was a time I dismissed nativity scenes as unrealistic and trivial, but not anymore. I’ve changed my views because our culture has changed. As society becomes increasingly secular, it seems to me that just about anything that ties Christmas back to the historical account of Jesus’s birth provides an important point of connection. These small displays are an opportunity for engagement and conversation between those in our communities who celebrate nothing more than Santa and those who love the message of the Jesus’s incarnation.”

“In fact, I’m always intrigued when someone is offended by the presence of a nativity scene. It’s quite fascinating that people can be offended by a collection of miniature ecclesiastical characters. Why do people get upset? Perhaps it’s because they recognize that what’s being said in that small scene is challenging and even personal, ‘This happened, this is history, there is a Jesus, and you have to deal with Him one way or another.’ The person who gets annoyed by public nativity scenes is someone I want to have a conversation with.”

I hope that you have a very blessed Advent season, preparing for Christmas and you still got time. You still got time to go pick up a nativity scene, put it in your front yard, or on your living room counter, or on your table, and wait joyfully for Jesus to come this Christmas season. Thank you all so much for being here, and I hope you enjoyed this episode of The Counsel Of Trent podcast, and I hope you have a very blessed day.

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