There is only one Manger Square, and that is in Bethlehem, and its centerpiece is the Church of the Nativity. In Rome, every Christmas, there is a procession in Saint Peter’s Basilica, in which a statue of the baby Jesus is carried and placed in a manger. Many churches around the world will display different designs of mangers. Some Christian homes too will not be out-performed in the display of mangers and distinctive decorations.
The display of figures in a manger goes back to 1223 when Francis of Assisi first introduced the practice. Nevertheless, from as early as the fourth century it was customary to paint nativity scenes on walls. For most Christians around the world Christmas is marked by some form of a nativity scene, with a manger and some figures and some form of lighting – candle light or some other form of Christmas lighting.
Manger Square is crowded during Christmas. Furthermore, one must have a ticket for the Christmas celebrations.
There is one manger and one Church of the Nativity in the jurisdiction of Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches. Christmas celebration, therefore, is in different rites, different sanctuaries and for most pilgrims, not in the grotto where Jesus was born.
My first experience in that grotto was transformational. It was not during Christmas with all the crowds. Sure, there are tourists in Manger Square any time of the year, but during Christmas there are thousands and thousands.
On that first visit I was immediately drawn to meditate on humility as I came to the entrance into the church. Because of the low entrance one enters the church bended. The most appropriate posture would be to enter kneeling.
Once inside a short stairway leads down to the grotto. It is bare, nothing like our mangers and nativity scenes of Christmas in the west. Furthermore, the only illumination there is candle light, nothing fancy. As a result of candles burning in there for centuries, the walls are dark.
As I lit a candle I was reminded that the child who was born in that grotto brings light into my life and into the world. The grotto also reminded me not only of the simplicity and humility of Jesus’ humanity, but also that there was no room for him in the inns around. He was poor, a stranger and homeless. Furthermore, Joseph and Mary found themselves in that situation because of an imperial decree.
- Pope set for first Christmas speech (bbc.co.uk)
- Crowds gather in Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations amid calls for peace in the Middle East (thisismoney.co.uk)
- Francis celebrates first Christmas as pope (modernghana.com)