Tradition teaches that Saint Francis of Assisi set up the first Nativity scene in order to inspire and encourage a greater appreciation of the wonders of the first Christmas. The year was 1223, and Francis created the scene in a cave outside Greccio, Italy featuring a wax figure of the infant Jesus and a man and a woman playing the roles of Mary and Joseph, with a live donkey and ox also present. Local shepherds watched over their sheep in nearby fields, just as shepherds in Bethlehem had watched over theirs on that first Christmas Eve.
The first Nativity scene presentation proved to be so popular that a new tradition was born, with people around the region creating their own living Nativities to celebrate Christmas. Eventually, Christians worldwide celebrated Christmas with their own scenes, often with statues so that they could remain in place, in their town squares, churches and homes. In addition to the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, a donkey and an ox, later Nativity scenes featured angels, shepherds, sheep, camels and the three kings who traveled to present gifts to the infant Jesus and his parents.
Christmas anchors us in the profound message of the closeness of the One who created the world; the One who becomes human and dwells among us -- Emmanuel. The God who made the whole universe and created man out of the dust of the earth, embraces our humanity -- without sin -- and takes up His first dwelling among us as every man -- in the womb of Mary.
Sadly, just as with that first Christmas Eve when only a few persons recognized the wondrous gift that entered human existence, so it is with human life today. So many forget the miraculous wonder of every conception. They forget that the eternal Logos -- the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us -- was once an embryo, a fetus and a developing child. The Incarnation sanctifies every pregnancy, every womb and every developing child within the womb. Moreover, Jesus' first act of redemption began from the womb of Mary, His mother. Saint Paul puts it best:
This forgetfulness has lead humanity down a perverse path. Not only is nascent life so often rejected, vulnerable life everywhere is attacked and devalued. Many think only in temporal terms, forgetting that we are made of spirit, body and soul.
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