ROME — Pope Francis came out swinging against the war on Christmas Thursday, saying that secularists want to eliminate Christian symbols like the Nativity scene because they are afraid of the real meaning of Christmas.
The manger scene “is a genuine way of communicating the Gospel,” the pope said during a ceremony inaugurating the Vatican Christmas tree and Nativity scene, “in a world that sometimes seems to be afraid of remembering what Christmas really is.”
Instead, the world “eliminates Christian symbols in exchange for banal, commercial imagery,” he said.
The pope recalled that he recently visited the Italian town of Greccio, where St. Francis of Assisi made the world’s first nativity scene in the 13th century.
On that occasion, the pope published a letter underscoring the value of Christmas manger scenes, calling for a renewal of this treasured tradition.
“I wish to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the nativity scene in the days before Christmas, but also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares,” the pope wrote.
“It is my hope that this custom will never be lost and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived,” he said.
In his letter, titled Admirabile Signum, the pope said that Nativity scenes remind people of the real meaning of Christmas, just when in many parts of the world, atheists and secularists are trying to ban public displays of the manger scene.
“The nativity scene is like a living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture,” Francis wrote. “As we contemplate the Christmas story, we are invited to set out on a spiritual journey, drawn by the humility of the God who became man in order to encounter every man and woman.”
“The enchanting image of the Christmas crèche, so dear to the Christian people, never ceases to arouse amazement and wonder,” he says. “The depiction of Jesus’ birth is itself a simple and joyful proclamation of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.”
The origin of the Christmas crèche “is found above all in certain details of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, as related in the Gospels,” Francis recalled. “The evangelist Luke says simply that Mary ‘gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.’”
“Coming into this world, the Son of God was laid in the place where animals feed. Hay became the first bed of the One who would reveal himself as ‘the bread come down from heaven,’” Francis says.
“Setting up the Christmas crèche in our homes helps us to relive the history of what took place in Bethlehem,” he adds, and the nativity scene invites us to “feel” and “touch” surrounding Christ’s birth at Bethlehem.