On Friday, the Vatican unveiled this year’s version of the Nativity Scene in St. Peter’s Square which, in addition to portraying the Birth of Christ, pays tribute to migrant refugees and to the recent Italian earthquakes. In a speech at the blessing of the scene, Pope Francis called attention to the sufferings of the migrants, and compared their situation to that of Christ at His birth in Bethlehem. Somewhat incongruously – to my mind, anyway – a donation box at the scene allows visitors to help pay for repairs to churches damaged during the earthquake, rather than aid the migrants.
Meanwhile in Barcelona, over the past several years the unveiling of the city Nativity Scene has become something of an act of political theatre. The display is set up on the square fronted by city hall and the provincial government and, depending on the political persuasions of the mayor, the visitor sees either a traditional representation of the Nativity, or an irreverent art installation with political undertones. The latter is the case this year, thanks to the city’s viciously anti-Catholic mayor, failed sitcom actress Ana Colau. I will have the great displeasure of seeing this monstrosity in person next week; stay tuned to my Instagram account for details.
Given the appalling state of Christianity in Europe at the present time, perhaps at the unveiling of its Nativity scene it would have been more prudent of the Vatican to focus on evangelization, rather than remonstration. In an increasingly pagan Europe, where many nominal Christians do not even bother to get their children baptized any more, it would seem that the Church’s problem is not one of raising awareness regarding the plight of others, but rather a lack of self-awareness regarding its own plight. In the case of Barcelona, and other cities whose governments use Christmas as an excuse to make a political statement, Christianity has become an easy target for the airing of all sorts of views. In fact, Christmas is now the perfect time of year in which to strike a blow against the reason for the holiday itself, by openly mocking Christ through taxpayer-funded art installations.
It seems to me that a Nativity scene, should one decide to display one at all, ought to be about celebrating the Incarnation, rather than drawing attention to causes. On a daily basis, in every form of media, we are inundated with messages about every cause under the sun: not just migrants and refugees, but the environment, disease, poverty, natural disasters, and every conceivable permutation of social justice issue. All of these problems and concerns deserve our concern, discussion, and, where warranted, support.
Yet, does not God deserve just a little bit of our undivided attention? Is a simple Nativity scene too tempting an opportunity to resist turning it into a visual press release? The Birth of Christ came about, not as a reaction to Roman political unrest or Jewish theological disputes or the like, but as the way in which God chose to save us from our sins. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we be permitted to remember that, at Christmastime, in an unadulterated fashion.