The origin of the Christmas crèche is credited to St. Francis of Assisi. According to St. Bonaventure, who wrote Life of St. Francis, Francis hoped to promote devotion to the humble birth of Jesus. Acquiring permission from Pope Honorious III, he prepared a manger with the infant Jesus, an ox and an ass, in the village of Greccio in 1223. Recreating the nativity scene grew in popularity, and is now a staple of Christmas décor. For the faithful, however, it remains an invitation to deepen our experience of the Christmas miracle.
It is perhaps fitting then, that Jesus Light of the World parish in Pierrefonds has opened the doors of its churches this Christmas to display their stunning Christmas crèches. After all, serving the parish are pastor Fr. Francis McKee, priest Francis Bégin, and permanent deacon François Gilbert!
Christmas is almost here, and despite everything, or perhaps because of it, Christians have a strong desire to get into the spirit of Christmas. Instead of trying to find the Christmas spirit visiting outdoor light shows or shopping at Walmart, come to church and experience the true meaning of Christmas.
That was the invitation offered by Jesus Light of the World parish. Father Francis McKee opened the doors to his churches (St. David’s, Mary Queen of Peace and St. Suzanne, combined to make up the parish of Jesus Light of the World). The churches were open to the public, and parishioners and people in the broader community were invited to come and see two spectacular Christmas crèches, as well as a unique Christmas pageant put on by the youth of the parish.
If people visited Mary Queen of Peace during certain hours last Friday and Saturday, December 18th and 19th, they would have had the chance to meet the Angel Gabriel, Caesar Augustus and the shepherds, and interact with them before meeting the child Jesus in the crèche. But visitors were asked to bring gifts to offer Jesus for his birthday; either gold, frankincense, myrrh… or a non-perishable item!
To respect all the guidelines laid down by social distancing measures, people could visit in family bubbles on the half hour, two families at a time, with a maximum of 10 people. Up to 10 people were also able to visit the church at that time to pray.
“That first Christmas there were only 3 people”, says Fr. McKee, “we will have 24 (at a time)!”
The parish youth practiced their unconventional pageant for several weeks – happy to have an activity to participate in - while respecting Covid safety guidelines, of course.
The parish felt that it was important to offer the community an outing and activity with a strong Christian dimension, especially this year when so many are feeling isolated and cooped up. And these spectacular crèches were well worth the visit.
“We have two magnificent crèches indoors” says Fr. McKee, “one at Mary Queen of Peace and the other at St. David’s which was built by the Maronite community. We wanted to invite people in, especially those with young children, but with little faith. We are using this as an evangelism tool.”
St. David’s church is shared with the Maronite community, and it was they who made the Christmas crèche at that church. Walking into the church, visitors were struck by the beauty and splendour of the sanctuary, which was wholly transformed into a nativity scene.
The walls of the sanctuary were covered with a trompe l’oeil backdrop of crumpled paper that was made to look like stone. Lights were strung above the altar, and the nativity figures themselves were placed in front of the altar on a bed of hay. Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, surrounded by shepherds and a dozen sheep filled the scene. In the silence of the church, the beauty and tranquility of the lighted scene inspired a desire to kneel and pray. Canned goods, to be distributed to those in need, were placed under a Christmas tree off to one side.
The crèche at Mary Queen of Peace was smaller, but no less stunning. In it’s own way, the simplicity of its design made it feel very cozy and inviting. The nativity scene was placed within a cave, fashioned out of sheets painted to resemble stone. Within the makeshift cave stood almost life-sized figures of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, with painted animals looking on. Lit from inside with strings of light and a faux fire, it was an image of warmth and care.
“It makes me want to crawl in and be close”, said a visiting 11 year-old.
St. Francis created the first nativity scene to inspire the faithful of his day to prayerful devotion to the “poor king”, the infant Jesus. We too can look at these nativity scenes, or those in our own homes, and ponder in awe how our infinite God became a vulnerable child, born poor and homeless, to share our human condition, for you and for me.
Those who would like to see these outstanding crèches may still be able to do so. The number of people who can attend Mass at one time is limited, but “that is why we will be offering 25 Masses over the Christmas Octave” says Fr. McKee, hoping that many of those who would normally attend Christmas eve Mass but are unable to do so, will be able to sign up for at least one Mass during that time.
Those who do attend will be treated to the beauty of the nativity scenes that have been lovingly prepared for them for encouragement and inspiration.
As Pope Francis says, in In the Light of Hope (Encouragement and Daily Prayers for Advent);
“With eyes of faith, I can see that Advent is not meant for shopping and baking and decorating alone. I can see that it is a time of joyful anticipation, a time of prayerfully awaiting the Light of the World (…) May I always seek the way of the Nativity – the Word Made Flesh among us – no matter the time of year.”