Daily Meditations

Christmas Advent: The Thirty-Fourth Day


CHRISTMAS EVE is the beginning of the feast of the Nativity, the celebration of God with us. All of the waiting and preparation of Advent leads us to this night. On the evening before the celebration of Christ’s birth, the church gathers for a vigil. Images of darkness and light suffuse our worship during the Christmas Eve liturgy: we are entering into the dark night of our Savior’s birth, when Light will come into the world.

With awe and joy we approach the manger in Bethlehem, as did the original visitors to the stable. This scene is often enacted in the setting out—in a church or public place—of the crèche. A crèche is a nativity scene that displays images of the manger and those who journeyed to see the newborn Savior. The term crèche refers both to the (cave) stable where Jesus was born and to the manger in which he was laid. In the early church many Christians made a pilgrimage to the place in Bethlehem where, according to tradition, Christ was born. Then during the sixth century, a crèche was built at the church of St. Mary Major in Rome, beginning the tradition of decorating a manger in the days leading up to Christmas.

Today churches often incorporate a crèche into their Christmas worship by displaying nativity scenes and enacting traditional nativity plays. The Christmas pageants many of us grew up with as children actually have their origins in the medieval “mystery plays” sponsored by a town’s craft guilds and played out in the squares of town and village.

Francis of Assisi, who had a manger built in Greccio, Italy, for Christmas of 1223, helped to popularize the use of the crèche outside of the liturgy. In French homes, it is traditional for children to follow a custom of preparing a crèche in the days leading up to Christmas. For each prayer or act of kindness that they perform during the season, they place a piece of straw in the manger. With each token of straw, the children are preparing the place for Christ to be born—literally, by creating a soft bed of straw, and also figuratively, by preparing their hearts with acts of kindness and prayerful devotion.

The custom of preparing the crèche mirrors the act of Christians preparing their hearts for the arrival of Emmanuel, God with us. On this night, the eve of the Nativity, we open our hearts to receive the gift of the Christ child, born among us. All through Advent and now on this first night of the Christmas season, we ourselves become the manger, inviting Christ to dwell within us just as he found rest in that Bethlehem stable.

~Adapted from Eugene Peterson, “Christmas Eve: History of the Feast,” in GOD WITH US:  Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas, edited by Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe