Reflecting on cribs at Christmas


In the past few months, with “bubbles” limiting social interaction in some places, and restrictions on gatherings, for many Christians, their faith has had to be lived mainly in their homes – to a greater extent than it usually is. At this time of year, one of the traditions in many such homes is the assembly of a Christmas crib. This can be a sentimental custom, which is part of the delight of Christmas for children. It can also be a focus of profound reflection.  

The scene depicted in a crib is there because “there was no room for them in the inn”. As Benedict XVI wrote in his book “Jesus of Nazareth – The Infancy Narratives”, there is “. . . an inner parallel between this saying and the profoundly moving verse from St John’s prologue: ‘He came to his own home and his own people received him not.’ For the Saviour of the world, for him in whom all things were created, there was no room. ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Matthew 8:20). He who was crucified outside the city (c.f. Hebrews 13:12) also came into the world outside of the city”.  

“This should cause us to reflect,” Benedict continued, “as it points towards the reversal of values found in the figure of Jesus Christ and his message. From the moment of his birth, he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms. Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one on whom, ultimately, everything depends. . . “. 

Later in his book, Benedict reflected upon Mary wrapping the child in swaddling cloths. “Without yielding to sentimentality, we may imagine with what great love Mary approached her hour and prepared for the birth of her child. Iconographic tradition has theologically interpreted the manger and swaddling cloths in terms of the theology of the Fathers. The child stiffy wrapped in bandages is seen as prefiguring the hour of his death: from the outset, he is the sacrificial victim . . .  The manger, then, was seen as a kind of altar. 

“Augustine drew out the meaning of the manger using an idea that, at first, seems shocking, but on close 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’ birth emerges the miracle in which man’s redemption is mysteriously accomplished.”  

Cribs also feature angels and shepherds. Benedict wrote that, “the angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds and the glory of the Lord shines around them . . . As a sign, the angels had told the shepherds that they would find a child wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. This is an identifying sign – a description of what they would see. It is not a ‘sign’ in the sense that God’s glory would be rendered visible, so that one might say unequivocally: this is the true Lord of the world. Far from it. In this sense, the sign is also a non-sign. God’s poverty is his real sign. But for the shepherds, who had seen God’s glory shining in their fields, this is sign enough. They see inwardly. They see that the angels’ words [about the birth of a Saviour] are true. So, the shepherds return home with joy. They glorify God and praise him for what they have heard and seen.”   

Wishing all our readers a happy and a holy Christmas season.  

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Michael Otto

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