Christmas Midnight Mass 2020
Never before at midnight on Christmas Eve has our church been this empty, but at least we still have the Christmas crib, or do we? One media outlet carried this tongue-in-cheek announcement regarding the 2020 COVID crib: A maximum of four shepherds, all under seventy, wearing masks and observing social distancing. Joseph, Mary and the baby can remain together, as they are a family unit. The arrival of the Magi is delayed to observe quarantine regulations and facilitate a COVID test and they can’t meet Herod on the way to Bethlehem this year as he is self-isolating. No hovering angels because of the aerosol effect produced by their flapping wings, and all other non-essential crib participants should join via the webcam! One exception is allowed – Pontius Pilate can make a special appearance as he is a fully qualified instructor in the correct procedure for hand washing!
COVID restrictions are of course necessary this year and they are even a sign of our mutual love and care. They are the responsible thing to do. There was no pandemic in Greccio, the place where St Francis inspired the first Christmas Crib in 1223; however, Naples is the place where the Christmas Crib became an art form. A Neapolitan master nativity maker is a true artist and the Via San Gregorio Armeno in the heart of Naples is the street where Naples’ master nativity makers ply their trade. While a Neapolitan Crib can be great fun for children, it is also a profound reflection on the Nativity and on the gospel.
The Neapolitan Nativity is not set in a stable as one might expect, but in the ruins of a pagan Roman temple, symbolising the birth of Christianity from the ruins of the ancient religions. It also reminds us of how God entered a ruined world to bring us hope and to reveal his love.
The apparition of the angels to the astonished shepherds, is the second scene. The mystery has to be proclaimed and this task falls to us as we leave here this night.
Finally, we come to the tavern scene. Here the characters are in a merry mood, hardly noticing the momentous event, taking place down the street. They represent the hostility of the innkeepers of Bethlehem who failed to give shelter to Mary and Joseph. They represent the indifference within us to this Divine intervention.
However, the most interesting feature is that this Neapolitan nativity scene is not set in distant Bethlehem, but in Naples. Christ is born in Naples and the figures are all Neapolitans. Neither is the Nativity an event of the past, it is of the present. You will find mingling among the crowds of shepherds, Magi, angels, innkeepers, and others some Neapolitan tradesmen; you might see Pope Francis, Joe Biden, Cristiano Ronaldo, or even Queen Elizabeth strolling down the street. The Nativity is real, it is happening now and it is happening to me. Not forgotten in the Neapolitan crib are the beggars and the homeless, who know only the wealth of the heart. They too have every right to be present on this holy night. Christ is born in Bethlehem, in Greccio, in Naples, in Murroe and in wherever it is you are this night covid or no covid. At Greccio in 1223, there were no statues; the nativity scene was enacted and experienced by all who were present, because we are all part of this great mystery. As St Ambrose asked so long ago, “where is Christ born, in the most profound sense, if not in your heart and your soul?”
What we have in the Christmas story is a terrible desire on God’s part to be with us. Jesus is Love incarnate. He is not simply another philosopher or guru; he is not just another holy man with another set of teachings. He is the meaning of life and history who has pitched his tent in our midst and his flesh is the hinge of salvation. The Christmas crib sets before us the great mystery we call life. In the words of Pope Francis, “In a world which all too often is merciless to the sinner and lenient to the sin, we are called to cultivate a strong sense of justice. In a world of indifference which not infrequently turns cruel, we are called instead to be people filled with empathy, compassion and mercy.” Come let us adore him.