The Creche and the Year of Mercy
Headlines of religious and secular sites have abuzzed with the recent news of Pope Francis’ opening of the Holy Door of the Vatican in proclamation of the Jubilee of Mercy (also known as the Year of Mercy). Pope Francis speaks of this Year of Mercy as a “revolution of tenderness,” a subtle yet strong act against the violence and the suffering of our age. During this Year of Mercy, the Holy Father urges us to rediscover God’s mercy and embrace the sacrificial love of Christ. The church is, after all, not a gathering place of the perfect, but a hospital of sinners seeking healing in Christ. As we discover this mercy, we will respond to the Gospel message and practice mercy towards others.
A call to act out of mercy could not be more appropriate, as in the past few months our country has wrestled with the decision to open our doors to the Syrian refugees, and as multiple mass shootings both domestic and abroad have claimed lives and unsettled our sense of security. Even more appropriately, though, do Advent and the coming of the Christ child usher in the Year of Mercy.
For what is greater Mercy than a young Israelite woman carrying our Savior in her womb and birthing him in the straw and dust of a barn? What is greater mercy than God’s infinity dwindled down to infancy? What is greater mercy than a man protecting and caring for a child not his own?
In the creche we find mercy, wrapped in swaddling clothes and tucked away in a manager.
The saint from whom the Pope took his name, Francis of Assisi, is historically cited with the invention of the creche, which is the popular tableau of the Nativity of Our Lord. After receiving permission from Pope Honorius III, Saint Francis brought a cow and an ox into a cave in the mountains near Assisi to teach his followers about the humility of the birth of Christ. Saint Francis understood that a visual representation of the Nativity offered a powerful spiritual medium for the laity, a medium which would not be restricted to only the clergy or the literate. From there, the creche grew in popularity throughout the centuries; many of us bring out figures of the Blessed Virgin, her spouse Saint Joseph, the Christ child, the three Magi, and the humble shepherds each December.
Saint Francis of Assisi not only gifted us with the creche to guide us in a life of mercy. Catholics still recite his prayer centuries later:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.
And these are the little acts of mercy which we can and should practice during this Jubilee. Mercy does not require grand acts. Rather, it is found in the daily, little actions of spreading God’s peace in this troubled and fallen world: kindness, instead of hate; reconciliation, instead of divisiveness; prayers, instead of polemics; joy, instead of weeping. Mercy begs us to reach out to our neighbor and walk with him or her, even if just through a smile to a stranger or the gift of canned goods to our local food pantry. Mercy has the power to overturn the culture of death, division, and despair that reigns in our country; it is a revolution in which we can all partake.
We see, in the creche, Saint Francis’ prayer visualized: faith in a Savior, hope in his kingdom, love beyond all measure, and light that shines through the darkness—all in the humility and simplicity of an infant. So, this Christmas, as we decorate our homes with the creche, let us adorn our hearts with mercy.