The Advent season opened with a special meaning this year at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America. 2023 marks the 800th Anniversary of the first nativity scene ever, created by Saint Francis of Assisi in the Italian village of Greccio on Christmas night in 1223. To commemorate the anniversary, the Franciscan Monastery is hosting an exhibition of hundreds of nativity scenes from all over the world.
The exhibition has been a recurring event at the Franciscan Monastery for several years, but this year it takes on new significance, enriched with new works, including homemade creches submitted by school children from the Archdiocese of Washington. The exhibition’s main collection belongs to a local couple, Marguerite and Roger Sullivan, whose love for this Christmas tradition is what led them to start their collection of nativity scenes. Their collection includes a total of over 500 nativity scenes from around the world, which they have amassed over the past five decades. Their passion for the Christmas creche has been fueled over time by the opportunity to travel the world for work and to discover the same story, and the same characters, reproduced in different ways in every corner of the globe.
The exhibition opened on the first Sunday of Advent, and despite the rain in Washington, DC that day, there was a strong public response to the display as a tangible sign of the vitality of the creche tradition. Indeed, the tradition of displaying nativity scenes, first inaugurated by Saint Francis eight centuries ago, is now an indispensable custom in the homes of Christians throughout the globe during the Advent and Christmas seasons.
The display of nativity scenes around the world is visible proof that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is relevant to all peoples. The Incarnation is manifested differently in the culture of each human group, as expressed artistically through the nativity scene. It was this concept that Fr. Ramzi Sidawi, the Guardian of the Franciscan Monastery, highlighted in his homily during the first Sunday of Advent, paving the way for the upcoming blessing and inauguration of the exhibition.
Indeed, the plurality of nativity scenes teaches us to recognize the story of a living God who speaks to all peoples, capable of speaking all languages and of being reborn every Christmas. It is the story of a God-made-flesh who continues to touch the hearts of all. The nativity scene is a symbol that reminds us of the Almighty who came into the world in the form of a helpless child. The wonder of this paradox is what struck Saint Francis 800 years ago, and it and is what continues to amaze and enchant everyone today as we marvel in the simplicity of the nativity scene.
The exhibition is open until January 7.
Filippo De Grazia