Editorial Note: This series features Nativity sets from Africa on display in the McGrath Institute for Church Life’s Sixth Annual International Crèche Exhibit at the University of Notre Dame.
Since the Middle Ages, recreating the story of Christ’s birth through a Nativity scene has been a beloved Christmas tradition around the world. These nativity scenes, or crèches, typically depict the Holy Family with the eclectic cast of characters found in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels: shepherds, magi, angels, and animals crowd around the manger to welcome the newborn King. While many of these crèche displays are simply breathtaking works of art, their value goes far beyond their technical or visual appeal; the tactile and colorful materials inspire reflection on the entrance of God into the very tactile world in the Incarnation. This reminder of the humanity of Christ—from his humble bed in a manger to the loving attention of his mother and foster father—invites the viewers to enter deeply into the mystery of Christmas.
Through the crèche, we contemplate the depths of God’s love, and recognize the joyful gift of his Son. One of the most beautiful aspects of the crèche, in fact, is how easily it can be transformed through each individual artist’s work: just as God became human in a particular time and place, so too do these artists create their representations of the Nativity within their own specific cultures, times, and stories. The crèches of the Sixth Annual International Crèche Exhibit come from over a dozen countries in Africa. They illuminate the beautiful diversity of Christianity around the world and allow viewers from other traditions or cultures to encounter the depths of God’s love in a new way.
Yet even as artistic representations of Jesus’ Nativity teach us ever new ways of seeing the mystery of the Incarnation, they always fundamentally emphasize the common humanity that Jesus joined. In “Standing Proud, Yet Humbled,” a crèche by an unknown Kenyan artist, the simple depiction of Mary and Joseph standing over their tiny son with beaming faces conveys a universal parental love that people in every culture and time can recognize. Joseph’s sweet, proud smile particularly illuminates the simple joy of this Holy Family. The peace of this moment is deepened when we recall how tumultuous the lives of Mary and Joseph have been thus far: being visited by angels, traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, welcoming the Messiah in a stable—it must have been overwhelming. Yet this crèche highlights a gentle moment between new parents and their tiny child, even as they stand humbled by the awesome responsibility of nurturing and raising the Son of God.
Image courtesy of the Marian Library, University of Dayton.