18th century Presepio built for King Charles III of Naples
“And This will be a sign for you...”
To set up the crib at home can be a simple but effective way of presenting the faith and transmitting it to one's children. The manger helps us to contemplate the mystery of God’s love who revealed himself in the poverty and simplicity of the Bethlehem cave.
Saint Francis of Assisi was so overwhelmed by the mystery of the Incarnation, that he wanted to present it again in Greccio with the living manger, thus becoming the initiator of a long popular tradition which still keeps its value for evangelization today.
The crib can help us, in fact, to understand the secret of the true Christmas, because it speaks of humility and the merciful goodness of Christ, who “though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor”. (II Corinthians 8:9) His poverty enriches those who embrace it and Christmas brings joy and peace to those who, as the shepherds, accept in Bethlehem the words of the angel: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger". (Luke 2:12)
It continues to be a sign also for us, men and women of the 21st century. There is no other Christmas.
- Pope Benedict XVI
Excerpt from Angelus message
Saint Bonaventure, Francis's biographer, said of the scene, "Many brothers and good people came at Francis's bidding, and during the night the weather also was beautiful. Many lights were kindled, songs and hymns were sung with great solemnity so that the whole wood echoed with the sound , and the man of God stood by the manger, filled with the utmost joy, and shedding tears of devotion and compassion. By his order the manger had been so arranged that Mass was celebrated on it, and blessed Francis...sang the gospel and preached to the people on the Nativity of Christ our King, and whenever he pronounced his name with infinite tenderness he called Him the 'little Babe of Bethlehem.'" (Nesta Robeck, The Christmas Crib, Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1956, p. 45-47.)
In the liturgical drama known as the Officium Pastorum, which took shape in the 11th century, we find a praesepe behind the altar as the center of the action. But long before this, something similar seems to have been in existence in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Here Pope Gregory III (731-741) placed a "golden image of the Mother of God embracing God our savior in various gems." The Church was meant to provide a special home for the new festival of Christmas introduced by Pope Liberius (352-366). An important part of the early Christmas ritual was the celebration of Mass over a "manger" in which the consecrated host was laid, just as the body of the Holy Child had lain in the manger at Bethlehem..."
Origin of the Christmas Crib - The Creche in the home - Preparing the Manger for the Christ child - The custom of 'cribbing'...