We’ve dusted off the 18-year-old belen—a gift from our maid Tering from Cebu. She stayed back in Rome when the United Nations reassigned us to Bangkok.
Our three-year-old grandson Lukas is coming with his parents from Michigan early in December. So will our children and grandkids from New York and California—and Sweden, too.
We plan to have Lukas put the infant in the crib, rearrange the shepherds and the Magi, and then tack on the star. Just in case there will not be a next time. One never knows.
The belen reminds us of a laborer-friend. He pasted a cutout of the Nativity scene, then tacked it on cardboard for his family altar. Both are of equal value.
St. Luke’s short account of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem mentions the manger thrice.
Mary laid her infant in the manger. Angels told the shepherds: “And this shall be a sign for you. You will find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.” And when they did stumble into the decrepit stable, they recognized the Messiah “as described.”
The Christmas crèche dates back to St. Francis of Assisi. In 1223, the first crèche was celebrated in the woods of Greccio near Assisi, on Christmas Eve.
Francis called Messier Giovanni Velita two weeks before Christmas and said: “We should celebrate this year’s Christmas together at Greccio. Go prepare what I tell you; for we will enact the memory of the Infant who was born at Bethlehem and how He was bedded in the manger on hay between a donkey and an ox.”
After the preparations, the friars who had come from many communities gathered around Francis, as did the men and women of the neighborhood. They bought candles and torches to brighten the night. Francis arrived and saw that everything had been prepared. The crib was ready, hay was brought, the ox and the donkey were led to the spot. The crowds gathered and the Mass was sung.
Dressed in deacon’s vestments, Francis sang the Gospel. Then he preached after the Mass, went to the crib, and stretched out his arms to the Christ Child and the people.
St. Francis’ idea of bringing Bethlehem into one’s own town spread quickly all over the Christian world, and soon there were Christmas cribs in churches and homes.
After Francis’ death in 1226, the custom of having the crib at Christmas spread widely. By dawn of the baroque era, crib-making had evolved and developed into an important folk art, especially in Portugal, in the Tyrol, etc.
The Nativity belen came to us in the Philippines via Ferdinand Magellan’s galleons. “The Filipino Belen” is, in fact, the title of a homily that the late historian Horacio de la Costa, SJ, delivered during a Nativity midnight Mass in the United States where he was finishing his studies. Excerpts:
“In many offices today, a Filipino ‘belen’ graces the entrance. Nipa shingles make up the stable’s roof. Coconut palm trees flank the entrance to the manger, and a suspended star parol blinks beside the angel figurines. In some Nativity cribs, Joseph and Our Lady are in tropical clothes heedless of the Palestinian winter.
“Often, it’s just a sandlot or an ordinary table which, at Christmas time, we try to represent to ourselves as the birth of our Savior. In the center, we place a Christ Child. And around it we arrange Our Lady and Saint Joseph, the way Catholics everywhere, and in every age, have pictured them.
“But the rest of the scene bears very little resemblance to the real Bethlehem. The shepherds are there. But they are dressed as farmers and fishermen, because we had no sheep. And we have no winters.
“In one corner, the Three Kings are on their way. But they do not ride camels. Rather, one of them leads our town’s patient beast of burden: the carabao. And they look up to the marvelous star—made of paper pasted on a bamboo frame and hung from the ceiling.
“You will smile, perhaps, at our simplicity. And it’s true, of course, that history is all wrong. Christ was not born in a palm leaf shack, and the Wise Men never brought their gifts on a carabao.
“[Yet] in our ignorance… there is a very great truth.
“Although Christ was born 2,000 years ago in Palestine, He was not born only for that nation and that time. He was born for all time and for all peoples…. He was born for you and for me. He willed to become a man in order to save all men. And He chose to be born homeless because he wanted everyone to be at home.
“This little Son of Mary is also ‘God of God’—as we say in the Credo of the Mass, ‘Light of Light; true god of true god; begotten, not made; of one substance with the father; by whom all things were made….’ There are for him no distances. And He lives in an eternal now.
“And it is right, profoundly right, that we should surround His cradle with all that is familiar and dear to us—our houses, our tools, our toys, everything that is part of ourselves and our daily lives. Because it was to bless and sanctify these, and ourselves with them, that Christ was born….
“There is room for all the world… in a Baby’s arms.” We look deep in this Infant’s eyes, as our fathers did before us, and are “filled with the peace that the world cannot give.”