On Monday, 26 December 2019, I had my Day One shift at Mater Dei Hospital, Malta’s national hospital. Being Day One naturally means working tirelessly a twelve-hour shift, from 7.30 am till 7.30 pm.
Those who have been at Mater Dei Hospital know perfectly well how big it is. Furthermore, they are also aware of how many times, during this shift, the hospital chaplain is called on his pager to assist patients, their families, as well as the hospital staff. Fortunately, many still want and cherish the presence of a priest in the most difficult moments both of their lives and also of their loved ones.
As I travel practically the entire hospital, from edge to edge and circling around its impressive perimeters, serving Jesus in the sick, it happens to me that I have to pass in front of our hospital chapel. At present, just at the foot of the altar, we have the Christmas crèche set up for the Christmas festivities. This year’s nativity scene was beautifully set up by Fr. Bertrand Vella OFM Cap, himself a hospital chaplain at Mater Dei.
On that day, nonetheless, the Lord gave me time to sit down in the front seat of this beautiful chapel in order to admire this special crib. The more I started to look intently at the facial and bodily expression of the major nativity scene figures the more I began to appreciate the profound reflection which Pope Francis lovingly gave to the universal Church on 1 December 2019 in the form of an apostolic letter which precisely speaks about the meaning and importance of the nativity scene, Admirabile signum.
The first figure which struck me was that of St. Joseph. His silent and attentive posture made me reflect on the value of the basic virtues that help a great deal in recognizing and doing God’s will. In his apostolic letter Admirabile signum, the Pope presents to us the following reflection concerning the figure of Joseph:
At Mary’s side, shown protecting the Child and his Mother, stands Saint Joseph. He is usually depicted with staff in hand, or holding up a lamp. Saint Joseph plays an important role in the life of Jesus and Mary. He is the guardian who tirelessly protects his family. When God warned him of Herod’s threat, he did not hesitate to set out and flee to Egypt (cf. Mt 2:13-15). And once the danger had passed, he brought the family back to Nazareth, where he was to be the first teacher of Jesus as a boy and then as a young man. Joseph treasured in his heart the great mystery surrounding Jesus and Mary his spouse; as a just man, he entrusted himself always to God’s will, and put it into practice (no.7).
Joseph’s serious yet peaceful look at the floor is deeply impregnated with that responsibility of someone who truly understood his role of guardianship of the Holy Family. Being an attentive disciple, Joseph could faithfully impart on Jesus all the necessary teaching that was lawfully expected from every father within the Jewish society of the time. Joseph’s faithful spiritual composure instills in you and me a huge trust in his intercession. By God’s grace, St. Joseph can very well be our teacher in our spiritual journey as he certainly was for Jesus! Thus, St. Alphonsus Liguori encourages us with the subsequent words:
Go, then to Joseph, and do all that he shall say to you; Go to Joseph, and obey him as Jesus and Mary obeyed him; Go to Joseph, and speak to him as they spoke to him; Go to Joseph, and consult him as they consulted him; Go to Joseph, and honour him as they honoured him; Go to Joseph, and be grateful to him as they were grateful to him; Go to Joseph, and love him, as they love him still.
The next figure of Mater Dei’s nativity scene is that of Mary, the Mother of God, the Mother of Jesus, and our Mother. As regards to Mary, Pope Francis gives this reflection in his apostolic letter:
Mary is a mother who contemplates her child and shows him to every visitor. The figure of Mary makes us reflect on the great mystery that surrounded this young woman when God knocked on the door of her immaculate heart. Mary responded in complete obedience to the message of the angel who asked her to become the Mother of God. Her words, “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38), show all of us how to abandon ourselves in faith to God’s will. By her “fiat”, Mary became the mother of God’s Son, not losing but, thanks to him, consecrating her virginity. In her, we see the Mother of God who does not keep her Son only to herself, but invites everyone to obey his word and to put it into practice (cf. Jn 2:5) (no.7).
In the Christmas crèche at Mater Dei, Mary is contemplating her Son Jesus. When one looks at her closely one could easily comprehend that Jesus is the sole subject of her mind, spirit and heart! Her deep, penetrating and contemplative look gently yet powerfully reminded me of St. John Paul II’s outstanding contribution on Mary as the model of contemplation. In his apostolic letter on the Most Holy Rosary, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, of October 16 2002, he wrote:
The contemplation of Christ has an incomparable model in Mary. In a unique way the face of the Son belongs to Mary. It was in her womb that Christ was formed, receiving from her a human resemblance which points to an even greater spiritual closeness. No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary. The eyes of her heart already turned to him at the Annunciation, when she conceived him by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the months that followed she began to sense his presence and to picture his features. When at last she gave birth to him in Bethlehem, her eyes were able to gaze tenderly on the face of her Son, as she “wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger” (Lk2:7).
Thereafter Mary’s gaze, ever filled with adoration and wonder, would never leave him. At times it would be a questioning look, as in the episode of the finding in the Temple: “Son, why have you treated us so?” (Lk 2:48); it would always be a penetrating gaze, one capable of deeply understanding Jesus, even to the point of perceiving his hidden feelings and anticipating his decisions, as at Cana (cf. Jn 2:5). At other times it would be a look of sorrow, especially beneath the Cross, where her vision would still be that of a mother giving birth, for Mary not only shared the passion and death of her Son, she also received the new son given to her in the beloved disciple (cf. Jn 19:26-27). On the morning of Easter hers would be a gaze radiant with the joy of the Resurrection, and finally, on the day of Pentecost, a gaze afire with the outpouring of the Spirit (cf. Acts 1:14) (no.10).
Finally, the last figure that my attention was drawn to is, obviously, the infant Jesus. Jesus in the manger, with his hands folded in prayer and, most importantly, with his beautiful dark eyes centred on His and Our Heavenly Father. His look spontaneously brings to our minds and hearts what we find written in the book of Isaiah: Here am I! Send me (Isa. 6:8).
Regarding the figure of the infant Jesus the Pope offers us this sweet reflection in his apostolic letter:
When, at Christmas, we place the statue of the Infant Jesus in the manger, the nativity scene suddenly comes alive. God appears as a child, for us to take into our arms. Beneath weakness and frailty, he conceals his power that creates and transforms all things. It seems impossible, yet it is true: in Jesus, God was a child, and in this way he wished to reveal the greatness of his love: by smiling and opening his arms to all. The birth of a child awakens joy and wonder; it sets before us the great mystery of life. Seeing the bright eyes of a young couple gazing at their newborn child, we can understand the feelings of Mary and Joseph who, as they looked at the Infant Jesus, sensed God’s presence in their lives. “Life was made manifest” (1 Jn 1:2). In these words, the Apostle John sums up the mystery of the Incarnation. The crèche allows us to see and touch this unique and unparalleled event that changed the course of history, so that time would thereafter be reckoned either before or after the birth of Christ. God’s ways are astonishing, for it seems impossible that he should forsake his glory to become a man like us. To our astonishment, we see God acting exactly as we do: he sleeps, takes milk from his mother, cries and plays like every other child! As always, God baffles us. He is unpredictable, constantly doing what we least expect (no.8).
At the foot of Mater Dei’s Hospital Christmas’ crèche I was led to ask this important and pertinent question: Am I letting this nativity scene help me to let God become the center of my life? If I want to live my life joyfully am I letting Jesus, from his manger, invite me and give me the strength to accept his loving invitation, leveled at me, to become his disciple?
I ardently pray that my answer, like Mary and Joseph, would simply be: YES FOREVER YES!