Many of us have enjoyed singing Christmas carols for a week or two now. Those of us in serious choirs will have been singing them for months. And at last here we are on the day itself, and in the church that must have one of the most interesting and unusual Christmas cribs around, thanks to Owen and to the inventiveness of his junior helpers.
Let’s reflect for a moment on the traditional Christmas crib, and the traditional Christmas carols. Carols like Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head; like silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright; or like in the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
For most of us I would guess our images of the Christmas story are formed as much by the carols we sing as by the story told by Matthew or Luke. Carols were the songs of the people, and Christmas carols help to move the story told by the gospel writers into the frosty landscape of an English winter.
Not every Christmas Day is frosty, and most are not snowy. This year the only record in danger is the one for the record high temperature. But the imagined extra details our Christmas carols, nativity plays and Christmas cribs provide help us to enter into the story of our Lord’s birth by making it a winter story. Like the shepherds and kings, we can be there too.
The very first Christmas crib is said to have been created by Francis of Assisi, to show the people of the village what the birth of Jesus really meant for them by bringing them to see the scene for themselves. This was in 1223 in Grecchio, in Italy.
Francis gave instructions for a stable to be prepared, with a manger full of hay, and an ox and ass standing by; and in the middle of his full size Christmas crib was an altar table, and the holy communion was celebrated at the heart of the Christmas story, with Francis himself assisting. We're told he read the Gospel with such devotion that many of those who came were moved to tears.
The tradition of the Christmas cribs springs from that event. Now they take many forms, though most don’t contain aliens or crocodiles, as I believe on occasions this one has. Most cribs remain quite traditional in terms of what they contain. But in fact the ox and the ass standing by date back to Francis' own imagining of the scene and not to the bible stories themselves. Many cribs contain a camel, in fact there are quite a few in our crib at home; well, the Wise Men rode them, didn’t they? Or did they? In fact, camels aren't even hinted at in the bible story. Shepherds, well they’re Biblical, but the Bible doesn’t mention them giving a lamb, or the shepherd boy plating a tune for the baby on his flute. They’re often in cribs though.
Crib figures vary. Some you see are finely detailed and in appropriate period costume; others wear medieval clothes, like in one of the nativity paintings of past ages; some crib figures are in modern dress to try to bring things up to date. I have some olive wood figures I bought in the Holy Land, and I like them because they don't have any clearly carved features. They are in a sense, everyman and everywoman, which to me is sort of the point of it all. Jesus was born in a particular place, and at a particular time in history, but he is not limited by place or history; he is for the whole world, a brother to all the world's children wherever they are.
Wherever and whoever we are, it’s good we can make ourselves part of the story of this birth. The child born in Bethlehem is God’s gift for not just the shepherds and the wise men, but us too: the sign of a love that is forever, the eternal light to shine in every darkness. So I’m happy we can imagine this child born in a Shropshire stable, and in an English winter.
For then we’ll be singing our carols not about him but to him; and as we praise him and pray to him, his light may be born anew in our hearts. The world is a dark enough place on the borders of 2017. But in the uncertainties of today the Prince of Peace is still born to dwell among us, and the Light of the World still shines.
Our cribs remind us also that this child is not born into privilege and worldly power. His parents are far from home and will soon become refugees; this child newborn has no settled and secure place. He’s born on the edge of things, he takes his chance. It’s the same with our hearts. He waits for us to say yes, he stands at the door and knocks, but only we can open it to him. Outside the door to many a human soul, he waits for us to want his love to catch flame within us.
So Christmas cribs remind us that Jesus belongs here as well as there, and now as well as then. They remind us that he comes to a humble place, and waits on us there. And the other thing we need to remember is this is only the beginning of the story. The humble crib shows us what sort of gift the world is given, but the gift itself requires the journey on, is revealed in the man this child becomes. Today's child who seeks a place in our hearts is tomorrow's man, longing to light the darkness and melt the coldness of our world with the warmth of his saving love.