The secular world is hastily ridding itself of the nativity scenes it rushed to display after Thanksgiving. Please, God, our churches and homes still have them in full view. The crèche is more than decoration. It’s a help to our prayer. Like all our Lord’s feasts, Christmas places us there and then, in Bethlehem, at our Lord’s Birth. The crèche places the scene before our eyes and invites us to learn and imitate the virtues of those at the first Christmas.
The virtue most conspicuous in the crèche is humility. The whole scene is a study in self-forgetfulness. Every figure thinks not about himself but about the Infant in the manger. The Christ child in turn looks out at us, drawing our gaze to Himself in union with the others. By simple adoration the figures around the crib reveal various elements of humility. Together they make up a mosaic of that virtue.
A first group of figures consists of those below man and those above him: the animals and the angels. The animals – the ox and the ass – reveal the most fundamental form of humility, that of the creature. The inspiration for Saint Francis’s including them in the scene comes from the first chapter of Isaiah:
An ox knows its owner,
and an ass, its master’s manger;
But Israel does not know,
my people has not understood (Is 1:3).
The Prophet contrasts the animals with man. Even beasts have the humility to acknowledge their master. Why can’t man acknowledge the Lord?
The animals in the cave remind us of our created status. The sin at our beginning was a rejection of that creatureliness, the refusal to accept what God made us to be. We wanted something other than He had given us, to be something other than He had made us. We pushed against our created status. We wanted to be like gods.
And we still do. We see this vice writ large in transgender ideology, the rejection of the created limits of male and female. But every sin is an exaltation of the creature over the Creator, and thus a pushing against the limits of our nature. The ox and the ass have the humility to know their status in creation, that they are creatures – not the Creator. In that, at least, they are wiser than we.
The angels reveal something different: humility in being passed over. If the humility of the animals reminds us of our creatureliness, that of the angels remind us of our promotion at the Incarnation. God became man; He did not become an angel. In the order of nature, angels are superior to us; more intelligent, more powerful. But in the order of grace, man has been raised above them. By becoming man God gave our human nature a dignity surpassing even that of the angels. The angels now worship the man Jesus Christ.
The self-emptying of God calls the angels to exercise a similar humility. They are asked to rejoice in being passed over for us who are so far below them. The fallen angels resent God’s humility precisely because it requires humility from them as well. The good angels, like those who appear to the shepherds, rejoice in God’s humility. They in effect share in His humility by rejoicing in our promotion above them.
Another group in Bethlehem consists of the shepherds and the magi. These two groups – the poor, uneducated, simple shepherds and the wealthy, learned, sophisticated magi – would not otherwise be associated with one another were it not for the Christ child. Both humbly approach the crib, but in different ways.
The shepherds show us the humility of the empty-handed. We typically associate pride with vanity and boasting of what one has. But pride is simply inordinate self-focus. That can also take the form of excessive concern and attention to what one lacks. Thus, pride can produce despair over one’s inadequacy. By it, a man focuses on his insufficiency and so cannot see the Lord’s generosity.
The shepherds are at peace with their poverty. They show us the humility of the poor in spirit, of those who have nothing to bring. Those men living on the outskirts of society, in the fields with the sheep, have no wealth, no accomplishments, no learning to offer. But their destitution does not disturb them. They display a comfort with having nothing to give the Lord but their attention, affection, and adoration. They are at peace coming before Him emptied handed.
Of course, we all come to Him empty-handed. We have nothing properly ours to offer Him, no accomplishments or achievements we can claim as our own. “What do you possess that you have not received?” (1 Cor 7:4) Rather than turn inward and despair of our nothingness, we learn from the shepherds that humble joy of having nothing but ourselves to bring Him.
The magi, on the other hand, show us the humility of the accomplished. If the shepherds show the humility that keeps us from despair; the magi display the humility that keeps us from boasting.
The magi are the learned, and therefore the wealthy and powerful. Their learning brings them to the crib, and in that way it is good. But for it to realize its purpose, it must yield to the Lord and in that sense be sacrificed. So the magi must humble themselves – set aside their wealth, power, and privilege – to worship the child. They anticipate the lesson the Pharisees must learn – that the Lord of Israel is not so much attained as received. Even our greatest talents and efforts are but His gifts to dispose us to receive Him. To remain in their proper place and not become a cause for vanity, our talents, gifts, and achievements must yield to the divine authority of the Christ child.
The last humble duo is, of course, Joseph and Mary. Joseph, first, exhibits a humble authority. He is the head of the Holy Family, but the least of the Holy Family. As such, he exercises his rightful authority both faithfully and humbly, always with an awareness of his duty and his unworthiness. He foreshadows the servant leadership of Christ, who came not to be served but to serve. By way of humility, he both accepts the authority entrusted to him and refrains from wielding it in an authoritarian manner.
Mary shows us the authoritative humility. Not authoritative in the sense of having a title or position or any such thing. She counted for very little in the world’s estimation. Authoritative, rather, in the sense that her humility sets the standard for all Christians. Authoritative, because by her humility, she is perfectly conformed to the mind of the Author.
The Lord Himself displays this humility at His Birth and then proclaims it in His words. Even before that, Mary shows forth this foundational virtue. In her there is no self-focus or self-referential thinking to compete with Him. Her humility allows God’s grace to work in her perfectly, to fill her with grace, to make her the exemplary – authoritative – Christian.
Of course, all these forms of humility – of the animals and angels, of the shepherds and magi, of Joseph and Mary – they are just reflections of our Lord’s humility. He humbles Himself to share our created human nature, and thus raises it above the angels. He is the Good Shepherd, born in poverty, coming to us empty-handed. Having all authority, He appeals to us not by the threat of force but by His own self-emptying, by the simple look of a child.
*Image: Adoration of the Magi by Giotto (di Bondone), c. 1320 [The Met, New York]