A meditation on the Crib
The model crib scenes so familiar to us during the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany seem to have been initiated by St Francis. Although ascetic and celibate himself, Francis of Assisi wanted to celebrate the importance of family and community life for those people who chose that as the path to follow through life. In his own life he acknowledged the importance of people’s social connections. The order of brothers he founded often worked diligently and joyfully together in practical tasks and spiritual development.
The crib scene is a powerful statement of the core values of Christianity. At one level it focuses the attention of onlookers on the importance of the family as a supportive community. As the scene makes clear, it is not the luxury of the surroundings that is important but the quality of the relationships between the people in their family community: working together to meet the needs of all their members, especially the weakest and most defenceless. This quality is also reflected in the way the family relates to its natural surroundings, however simple they were. The animals are well cared for, showing astute human stewardship for the natural world that gives us so much.
At another level the crib scene reminds onlookers of the importance of communities looking after their members, rather than ruthlessly pursuing profit through market forces regardless of the impact on human society or nature. The innkeeper at least bothered to find somewhere warm and dry for the couple to stay so the heavily pregnant mother-to-be could have some rest. And it is likely to have been a clean and sweet smelling place with fresh straw, too. It is not recorded how much the innkeeper charged the couple for accommodation in his outbuildings. But significantly he does not seem to have tried to overcharge them, to make a large profit out of somebody’s needs, even though there seems to have been fierce demand for his services. The New Testament usually seems as quick to record acts of greed or selfishness as it is to record acts of charity. The shepherds did the best they could with their limited resources to make the birth as comfortable and safe as was possible. Like the Samaritan they recognised the common human need for care and social support.
Central to the crib scene are the powerless and weak: a newborn child and a mother recovering from labour. This celebration reminds its viewers that people should be valued for who they are as individuals and not for the positions they hold in society. It suggests that homeless people or those men, women and children having to live with limited financial means through unemployment or ill-health should be valued and cared for as much as any high profile pop star, football player, or business tycoon, or indeed any members of royal or aristocratic families who have contributed little to the commonwealth apart from sustaining its oppressive social hierarchies.
And the wise men came too, not just to the child in the manger, but all the family. Whatever their other sources of wisdom they, too, recognised the importance of social communities and the need for them to celebrate their mutuality, particularly at key or critical moments in their members lives, such as birth. And they had the wit to recognise the wickedness of those socially powerful men and women who try to destroy other people’s creativity and personal development because it might threaten their own grasp on power and control of society. They decided not to go home via Jerusalem.
St Francis was not a saccharine saint but a radical thinker and campaigner who created colourful images to convey messages about the importance of social justice and an equitable distribution of wealth. It is only the patina of time, aided by those people in positions of authority who found his messages threatening, which have transformed him into a charming if slightly dotty friar who talked to the birds. This latter image conceals his championing of equal rights for women - he was instrumental in challenging the church authorities of his day to allow the Poor Clares to be founded as an open order of nuns, like his own order of monks - and of green environmental issues - living simply and making careful use of scarce resources. Perhaps it was fostered deliberately by the worldly rich and strong to discourage other people from pursuing such socially radical ideals.