Every year, I set up a crèche in my living room, an act that gives me tremendous pleasure. Creches are supposed to focus on the manger scene with Mary and Joseph looking down on a crib housing the baby Jesus. These little collections may include the three Magi with flashy gifts; some have an ox and ass or cow. My crèche bears no resemblance to that pattern. Rather it mirrors a beautiful poem by John Milton, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” This poem devotes only four or five short stanzas to the actual birth while the majority of this extended poem is about the effects of that moment on the world in which it occurred and on the world in which Milton lived.
That’s how it is with my little thatched house. Tucked away in the back are tiny terra cotta figures of Mary, Joseph, one cow, one ox, and a very tiny crib with an infinitesimal babe in it. I found these little figures decades ago in a shop in Paris near St. Sulpice church. My crèche tells a story about how a few people and scads of animals and birds have come to stand in amazement as they realize what the tableau inside the manger is going to mean. Some of my figures are expensive, e.g., two magical old women made in Germany, a tiny sterling silver rabbit, a stately bronze stag with a wide rack of delicately carved horns. Most of my visitors, however, are delightful ornaments contributed by friends or found by me over a span of about 40 years: a fluffy yellow camel bought at a fund-raiser for some worthy cause; a wooden white and black cow resting on her feet; a very pink china pig that was part of a friend’s own childhood collection; a white wooden cat who has lost his two stick arms but who still wants to be present at this strange moment in human history; a bright tiny china puffin from Iceland; literally scores of cows, chickens, kitties, turtles, horses, owls, cardinals, and pigs. The oldest piece is a faded orange pre-plastic camel that was part of my first crèche given me by my mother when I was four and set up every year on a shelf in our living room where I could sit and move the various pieces around as long as I wanted to do so.
Children who come to my house are fascinated by this set up. Two little girls next door used to ask me around Thanksgiving “When are you going to set up your house?” When they were too little to see the high bookcase ledge, I’d let them stand on a chair so they could see all the little animals. Adults who look at my menagerie respond along a wide continuum: some “get it” about what I’m doing with the whole jumbled assortment; others wonder about the seriousness of my Christian observance; and some see how delighted I am so they indulge me by looking for or even bringing new additions.
What am I doing? Certainly the birth of Jesus of Nazareth came to have a tremendous impact on the world around him and on the future of western thought and worship. My amassed and expanding motley crew attests to my firm belief that humans are not the center of the universe; we merely inhabit and share it with the rest of creation. St. Francis of Assisi understood this, even learning to speak with the animals and birds in the woods around him. Many philosophers and aestheticians believe that at some stage of evolution, all species could comprehend one another. I believe we lost more than we gained by coming to separate ourselves from the rest of sentient beings, so I bring more and more silly and beautiful animals to my manger. The December after the election of Pope Francis, I felt hopeful enough to add a beautifully carved wooden figure of his particular saint. My delicately carved wooden figure stands tall and has a tiny white dove perched on one finger of his left hand. He fits right in with my bunnies and chicks and camels and pigs.
So happy birthday to the baby who grew into a kind and wise man who encouraged us to see God in every living being we met, whether that being had two legs or four or just gills or wings.