How to create a new Bethlehem?
Milena Kindziuk talks to Rev. Prof. Jozef Naumowicz, the expert in early Christianity at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw.
MILENA KINDZIUK: - From the window of your apartment in Lasek Bielanski one can see a stable with a donkey and lambs, standing at the former Camedules' church. Well, where does the tradition of the Christmas manger with live animals come from?
REV. PROF. JOZEF NAUMOWICZ: - The first and main source that depicts the birth of Jesus is the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. They create the constant element of this wonderful and at the same time dramatic moment of the birth of the Child that comes to the world in extraordinary conditions. But the presence of the shepherds is also significant; they managed to wake up in the middle of the night and come to the grotto.
- That's why we place shepherds in the manger scene...
- No wonder. Poor shepherds must have been in the field keeping their sheep around Bethlehem. Those could have been some nomads or Bedouins who travelled with their herds to various grazing lands. But their coming to the manger is of great significance. It shows that Jesus did not only come to 'the healthy', to 'well-off people', but also to the poor, the weak and the sinful. Shepherds were not usually innocent men as we think of them today. People often treated them as those who did not respect private properties. Many a time criminals hid among shepherds in the wilderness and in the mountains. One of the books of the Talmud forbids them to enter the Temple in Jerusalem. That means that those who were 'banned' from the cult, living almost on the fringes of society, gathered around Christ.
- This vision is in contradiction with our idyllic vision of the manger.
- But Christ will often be accused of spending time with those people he should not be seen with. However, we should give the shepherds a star for having heard the angel's voice announcing them the great joy. And they followed that voice. Therefore, we should see the shepherds as 'those poor in spirit', those who do not look at themselves but are open to the good we await from on high. So they belonged to the people who were actually hungry of warmth, peace, joy and light.
- And the wise men called the Magi in the Gospel?
- Saint Matthew and the apocryphal gospels write about them. With time various traditions were adopted: that there were three of them, that they represented three human races or that they were kings. They could have come from Persia where there was a special class of priests called magi, or they could have been from Arabia, famous for its fragrant oils, or they could have been Babylonian astrologers. They might have arrived with trade caravans that travelled throughout the Near East, from India and Arabia to Palestine, Syria and farther. The gifts of the Magi are typical of those caravans: frankincense carried to other lands, myrrh to embalm the dead or gold from Arabia. Those Magi constitute a 'magical' element, some exotic element; today we would say the Third World. They represented pagans who came to Jesus. It was the pagans that came in the very beginning.
- In some manger scenes the tragic and terrible figure of Herod is placed.
- Because Jesus was born under King Herod, in the last years of his long reign. This was a great king of Israel but also a bloody despot who murdered his family and destroyed anyone whom he regarded as an enemy. Being obsessively focused on keeping power and after having heard the news about the birth of an extraordinary king he ordered to kill innocent children in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Let us see that the birth of Christ is not some sentimental story but from the beginning his birth was hard: darkness, cold, stable and manger and also Herod's persecution, and then flight into Egypt where political fugitives usually found shelter.
- Ernest Bryll wrote in one of his poems that the born Child 'sleeps to his cross' and 'from the Birth the way leads straight to Bitter Friday'. Can we say that the birth is connected with the cross?
- This is a deep meaning of the mystery of the Incarnation, seen from the perspective of Calvary. The Eastern icons of the birth of Jesus stress this truth: the manger is placed in a cleft as if in a grave, and the newly born Child is wrapped with linen cloths and bands, which were used to wrap the dead. Jesus, who became as human beings are, emptied himself and was laid in a poor manger, and now he is humble and his self-emptiness will reach its climax on the cross.
- Which means that this feast is not only joyful?
- Christmas is full of joy but not some cheap, imagined, beautified or artificial joy. Christmas is realistic and that's why it is so close to us. Joy flows from the awareness that we have received the gift of the Saviour's coming. Each birth is very joyful, even if there is some pain in it. If we can rejoice looking at the manger this is a good sign.
- Did Saint Francis have such an idea when he prepared the manger scene in the grotto on the slope of the hill in Greccio, Italy, during the night of 24 December 1223?
- Francis' idea was to illustrate Bethlehem to people. That's why he ordered to prepare a manger, bring hay and an ox as well as a donkey. He wanted to reconstruct the birth of Jesus. He also tried to create the mood of poverty, humility and simplicity. In this way, as the first life of Francis describes, Greccio was changed into ' a new Bethlehem'. Let us remember that just before that event Francis had been in the Holy Land where he had not only had the famous meeting with the sultan but had also visited the holy places. In those times it was difficult to reach Palestine, almost impossible. That's why copies of the holy places were built in Europe, so places called Jerusalem, Calvary, Nazareth were created. Francis knew about that. He made a manger scene that resembled Bethlehem, which he had visited himself.
- How did Francis manage to create this atmosphere of a 'new Bethlehem'?
- The first thing was the manger scene with live animals before which Francis stood in silence for a long time during the December night. The inhabitants of Greccio prayed with him. They came with torches and candles. An altar was placed above the manger. Mass was celebrated there. As we know Francis did not become a priest, he was a deacon and he read the Gospel reading and delivered a moving sermon about Jesus and Bethlehem. He combined prayer before the manger and Mass. Doing that he showed that Jesus who was born in Bethlehem is born in every Eucharist.
- Where did this idea come from?
- We should begin with the coincidence of the names that the Fathers of the Church paid attention to. In Hebrew 'Bethlehem' means 'House of bread'. So this is 'House of Christ' because Christ lived there, Christ who is real bread coming from heaven. Moreover, it was Saint Augustine that compared the manger, where animals have food and where Jesus was laid, with the altar where the Body of Christ is. So the manger resembles the altar on which the True Bread is laid.
- Therefore, the manger is not only an expression of folklore or some kind of sacred theatre, performance that draws us into and moves our hearts...
- Undoubtedly, it has some strong theatrical elements but it is the performance, which has influenced history, religion and people. It is usually beautiful, simple and moving and that's why it speaks to all people, not only to believers. But first of all, it contains the catechesis about the mystery of salvation. It makes evident the great event the centre of which is Jesus. Therefore, it carries the theological and spiritual message, and at the same time it has important symbolism. One must reflect on this, think about it, pray and be not only a spectator but discern the mystery that concerns us.
- So how are we to look at the manger of Jesus?
- As you enter the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The entrance is very low. When you look at the huge doorway, you can see the traces of the high entrance of the first basilica and also a slightly lower Gothic arch, the trace of the entrance made during the Crusades. During the rules of the Osmanic Turks, in order to prevent the Turks from riding on horses and driving carriages into the basilica only one very low entrance has been preserved. To enter the Basilica you must bend down, you must bow. This is the so-called Door of Humility. And this is the only entrance to the basilica and the Grotto of the Nativity with the crib. One must bow first. Likewise we are to assume spiritual attitude before every mystery at which we must wonder and which we should admire, and kneel to receive it. Lew Tolstoy was right saying, ' The gate to the temple of the truth and good is low - only those who bow will enter it'.
- Then bowing is necessary - i.e. faith is needed?
- Yes, it is. Only when we look at the manger with child's eyes, in the light of faith, when we have this spirit of simplicity and humility which proceeds from the manger, and when we connect our homage to the manger with the Eucharist and Holy Communion we become a new Bethlehem ourselves, Bethlehem where Christ is born; we become a live Christmas Nativity scene where Christ is laid.