Bringing Jesus Back to Christmas

December 1, 2004 - 2:00am -- Clare Zanzucchi

Bringing Jesus Back to Christmas

By Clare Zanzucchi

Since 1987 a display of creches from around the world recalls the true meaning of Christmas

From the terracotta figurines of an Arizona creche, to the olive-tree sculptures from Bethlehem, from the very colorful bread-dough nativity scene from Ecuador, to the corn-husk angels from Austria, over a hundred nativity scenes are displayed every year at Mariapolis Luminosa, the Focolare little city for North America, located in Hyde Park, New York—and every year there are new additions.
The main characters are the same—Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus, the angels, shepherds and sheep—but sizes, shapes and material used, crafting, scenery and colors disclose the wide range of cultures and artists who created them. If you add to this the variety of visitors, their ages and ethnic backgrounds, what comes to mind is the wish Focolare founder Chiara Lubich expressed at the city’s inauguration in 1986: “America is made up of people and ethnic groups coming from different nations and continents. Similarly, this little city will become a model of that unity of peoples which is the social dimension of Jesus’ prayer for unity, ‘May they all be one.’”
The exhibit began in December 1987, with over 50 Nativity Scenes displayed on red tablecloths and decorated with green pine branches. School children and families, young people and even a Santa were among the 500 people from the surrounding area who visited the show. Local papers covered the event. A slide presentation with Christmas meditations conveyed to everyone the idea that if we love one another every day can become Christmas.
One of the first nativity scenes offered to Mariapolis Luminosa was crafted in plaster by Antonio Rizzo, an Italo-American who, with his wife, in 1961, gave a home to the first focolare center in the United States. He was skilled at creating “presepi” (Italian for Nativity Scenes) for churches and homes, with countless figurines of different sizes, mindful of the rules of perspective. The scene he created for the Luminosa exhibit included a large wooden stable, six large winged angels, countless shepherds and sheep. He came himself to assure its proper placement, creating a natural background with moss, branches and barks, and a mirror for a little lake.
Over the years members of different Christian churches have also visited the exhibit. “How beautiful if everyone in the world lived like this,” exclaimed one visitor. Viewing in a small city where all the inhabitants try to put the Gospel into practice in everyday life, put into relief the reason for the display: to put Jesus back into Christmas.
A Christmas writing by Chiara Lubich sparked the idea. In the early 1980s, after describing the Christmas decorations she saw in a wealthy European city, she made this comment: “This wealthy world has made Christmas and all that goes with it its own, and has left Jesus out. ‘He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him’ (Jn 1:11). Last night I couldn’t sleep. The thought of celebrating Christmas while banishing the newborn Babe is something very painful to me. If I were born again, I would design the most beautiful Christmas cards in the world. I would make elegant, artistic statues, large and small. I would record poems and songs. I would illustrate books about this mystery of love! Let us shout out who is born, celebrating his coming as never before.”
As a response, thousands of ideas and initiatives were set in action all over the globe. At Mariapolis Luminosa, it was the Nativity Scene Display. Someone commented, “I found Christmas here, the real meaning of Christmas!” A similar exhibit was arranged by the Focolare Centers in Chicago and many visitors came to admire the creches and revive in their hearts the true meaning of Christmas.
Another development took place in 1997. The New Hollywood Center started its production of Christmas plays with a captivating rendering of “A Christmas Carol,” with an evening performance and a matinee for families. It was followed by “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Tour of the World’s Cultures,” and others, both classical and modern.