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The Nativity of the Lord
December 25, 2018


    
The great Italian port city of Naples is known for many things: Mt. Vesuvius, grand opera, petty thievery, organized crime, and nightmarish traffic that makes I-5 and 405 seem like a dream.  And Naples has at least one other claim to fame: its Christmas mangers.  In the heart of the old city there is a  long, narrow, dark street that is crammed with the studios and shops of hundreds of artists and craftsmen who produce and sell an elaborate and dizzying array of Christmas cribs and crib figures that you really have to see in order to believe.  They give new meaning to the word Baroque!

     For me, the most fascinating thing about these cribs is that they include in them just about everything one would not expect to find in a Christmas crib.  Mary, Joseph, and the Child are there, of course, along with a shepherd or two, three kings, some sheep and a camel. But that’s only the beginning. There are also the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker, a drunkard slouching in his chair, a woman hanging out the wash, a beggar with his hand out, a nun and a nurse, a sailor and a soccer player, a couple of lovers hand-in-hand, and kids playing ball. Among this curious assortment, are some recognizable people like Pope Francis, Queen Elizabeth, and Mother Teresa. And right next to Jesus in the manger, there’s the inevitable slice of pizza!

     Bethlehem it isn’t!  Pure Naples it is – with thieves, pickpockets, pizza parlors, fish mongers, coffee bars and traffic jams.  Bethlehem it isn’t, but maybe that’s okay.  Jesus, after all, came for all people of all times and places.  There is a very real sense in which Jesus is born in every time, including our time: born into all the messy places where we live our lives: our neighborhoods, our streets, our homes, our parishes. The Neapolitan crib scenes make an important theological statement about Christmas.

     The celebrated twentieth century American Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, once penned some insightful words about the profound mystery we celebrate today:  “The ultimate reality,” she wrote, “is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation.”  I think she was right, but she would have had to make an exception for those crib makers in Naples. They make it pretty clear that the flesh and blood that Christ took on is the real thing.

     So perhaps our crib scenes here in Seattle ought to include a Seattle Seahawk, a jogger, a tall, skinny latte, the Space Needle, a ferry boat, an Amazon techie, a Dick’s burger, the Pike Place Market and, of course, St. James Cathedral!  Why not?  For, my friends, the Incarnation is not just a moment in time, a moment long ago in time.  The Incarnation is now – for Jesus longs to live in our time – in this moment, in this place, in you and in me, and in people as likely and as unlikely as that questionable cast of characters in those Neapolitan crib scenes.

     I once saw a Christmas story unfold before my eyes right under the great Macy’s Christmas star on the corner of 4th and Pine.  A homeless fellow was doing his best to sell an armload of those Real Change newspapers that homeless people produce and peddle on our streets.  Along came three young teen-agers who didn’t even wait for the homeless fellow to ask them for the couple of dollars for the paper.  As soon as they spotted him, the young people huddled together, fished in their pockets, and came up, not with the two dollars for the paper but a handful of dollars, maybe twenty.  Then, with a big smile, one of them handed the money to the homeless fellow and said, “Here’s some money – but we only need one paper. You can sell the others again!”

     Well, it wasn’t exactly a manger scene, but for me it was a Christmas story.  Those teen-agers showed that they knew what Christmas was all about.  In their own way they wrote their own Christmas story, reversing the harsh story of the innkeeper of Bethlehem who had no room for the homeless couple who so desperately needed a place to stay.

     My friends, I have a question for you: do you believe in the Incarnation?  Do you believe that God really took on our flesh and blood, our lives, beautiful as they are, and messy as they can be; our world, good as it is, and evil as it can be?  If you believe in the Incarnation, then nothing can stay the same because you begin to see everything – and everyone – with new eyes.  You begin to see the manger scenes that are all around us – the living ones - not just those on our Christmas cards, beneath our Christmas trees, or on our fireplace mantels.  The truly memorable manger scenes are the living ones and we are all part of them -- right in the middle of them because it is our flesh Christ took on at Christmas. He lives in you, and me. He really does.

     Let me conclude with words from the great St. Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ’s compassion must look out on the world.
Yours are the feet
with which he is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands
with which he is now to bless our world.

               Now, as far as I know, St. Teresa of Avila never got to Naples to see how they did Christmas. But if she had, I think she would have liked what she saw.  Merry Christmas!

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

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