Most of us think, probably accurately, that popes tend to write letters or special messages about important theological topics or world events. But this Advent Pope Francis has written a special message about something very simple and straightforward – the Christmas Crib. This letter, known by its Latin title Admirabile Signum (‘The admirable sign’) is available online: CLICK HERE.

In Italy and many other countries with a strong Catholic heritage Christmas cribs are rather bigger and more impressive than they are in England. The picture here shows the life-size crib in St Peter’s Square. The reason it’s a very good thing that the Holy Father has written about the crib is that we can easily take it for granted and not think about its meaning; but its appeal is constant, as the pope points out at the beginning of the document:

‘The enchanting image of the Christmas crèche, so dear to the Christian people, never ceases to arouse amazement and wonder. The depiction of Jesus’ birth is itself a simple and joyful proclamation of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. The nativity scene is like a living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture. 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. We come to realize that so great is his love for us that he became one of us, so that we in turn might become one with him’.

So Pope Francis helps us understand that the crib is not a sentimental or pretty scene – but a picture which is profoundly theological and full of real meaning. We’re drawn into an encounter with God who humbles himself to be born as a baby in the stable – and through this we are enabled to become one with him. The pope’s letter is also practical: he wants to encourage the practice of setting up cribs, not only in homes and churches, but also in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares.

And he points out that a lot of imagination goes into the preparation of cribs. There is also another level of symbolism: as a manger is a place where animals eat, so it is fitting that the Son of God who becomes our food is born there. The pope also describes how St Francis of Assisi, from whom he took his name when he became pope, invented the practice in the Middle Ages. He also refers to the practice, common in Italy but less so here, of adding more figures to those with whom we are familiar (that is, the Holy Family, the animals, the shepherds and the Magi):

‘It is customary to add many symbolic figures to our nativity scenes. First, there are the beggars and the others who know only the wealth of the heart. They too have every right to draw near to the Infant Jesus; no one can evict them or send them away from a crib so makeshift that the poor seem entirely at home. Indeed, the poor are a privileged part of this mystery; often they are the first to recognize God’s presence in our midst.

 The presence of the poor and the lowly in the nativity scene remind us that God became man for the sake of those who feel most in need of his love and who ask him to draw near to them. Jesus, “gentle and humble in heart”, was born in poverty and led a simple life in order to teach us to recognize what is essential and to act accordingly. The nativity scene clearly teaches that we cannot let ourselves be fooled by wealth and fleeting promises of happiness. We see Herod’s palace in the background, closed and deaf to the tidings of joy. By being born in a manger, God himself launches the only true revolution that can give hope and dignity to the disinherited and the outcast: the revolution of love, the revolution of tenderness. From the manger, Jesus proclaims, in a meek yet powerful way, the need for sharing with the poor as the path to a more human and fraternal world in which no one is excluded or marginalized.

 Children – but adults too! – often love to add to the nativity scene other figures that have no apparent connection with the Gospel accounts. Yet, each in its own way, these fanciful additions show that in the new world inaugurated by Jesus there is room for whatever is truly human and for all God’s creatures. From the shepherd to the blacksmith, from the baker to the musicians, from the women carrying jugs of water to the children at play: all this speaks of the everyday holiness, the joy of doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way, born whenever Jesus shares his divine life with us’.

The whole of the pope’s letter is worth reading. We have a very fine crib in this church – as we pray before it in the next few weeks, give thanks for the talents of those who construct it every year, and their counterparts all over the world; and ask God into your lives in a new way this Advent and Christmas.