Father David O'Connor presents today's Natchez History Minute about the dedication of St. Mary Basilica which took place this day, Christmas Day, December 25 in 1843. The cornerstone had been laid in 1842 but construction on the magnificent structure would take another 40 years. Today, the congregation of St. Mary takes pride in the architectural masterpiece but also its prayerful setting.
Christmas lights glisten in store windows, streets, Memorial Park and private homes. The Christmas tree on Main Street, in stores and in family homes set the Christmas mood. Christmas carols and music draw us into the Christmas spirit. Giving and receiving beautifully wrapped gifts is also part of the pre-Christmas excitement as are Christmas parties.
Yet, it is another Christmas symbol, the nativity manger, that more fully expresses the meaning of Christmas. In whatever form it is depicted, the nativity manger scene, sometimes referred to as “crèche” or “crib,” is a reminder of the mystery of God coming as a human being into our world over two thousand years ago. The scene is presented in simple terms. Joseph and Mary – travel weary – find a place to rest in an animal shelter in Bethlehem; and there, surrounded by the animals, the long-awaited messianic king is born.
The origin of the nativity manger dates to an era about 1,200 years after the birth of Christ. It was St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) who introduced the nativity manger scene as part of popular Christmas tradition.
He wanted to help believers and especially worshippers to remember and understand the story of Jesus’ birth. He presented the figures from the Gospel stories in visual form; and by bringing these together in a barn-like scene, he touched the minds and hearts of people over the centuries.
I like the fact that churches and many families in this community set up manger scenes for the Christmas celebration. A few years ago the manger scene from the International Paper company was restored, and some of it is now on view on the grounds of the Natchez Visitors Center.
St. Mary congregation has a lighted manger scene beside its Family Life Center on Main Street, as do many churches in the community; and inside St. Mary Basilica, which is open to visitors daily, there is a manger scene with an interesting history. The figures in the manger were donated in 1887 by the then pastor of St. Mary, Rev. Mathurin Grignon. The shelter in the manger was built by L.M. Dawson who died in 1950. The shelter and the figures have been in use each Advent and Christmas season since they were donated.
Different traditions regarding the manger have developed over the years. In the European tradition, for the most part, and this was the case in my family home in Ireland, the nativity manger was set in place with all of the manger figures on Christmas Eve. At St. Mary Basilica and Assumption parishes in Natchez, the nativity manger is set up in stages, beginning on the first Sunday of Advent and reaching completion with all the nativity figures, including that of the infant, for the worship celebrations on Christmas Eve (4 p.m. and 9 p.m.) and Christmas Day.
The manger scene is more than a Christmas decoration. It is a visual aid for prayer and devotion. It is also a teaching aid in that each figure in the nativity scene can serve as a model for us to live as believers.
Mary, the humble and gentle Jewish girl, reminds us what can happen in our lives if we are open to God’s grace. Joseph – strong, loving and courageous — challenges us to be faithful and dedicated to whatever work or mission we have in life.
Jesus, seen in the manger as a helpless infant, was the long-awaited savior challenging all of us now to be his witnesses. The shepherds, seen as low on the social order of their time, probably represent us well because they had nothing to bring to the Christ-child but were graced to be in his presence.
My suggestion is that every believer, during this Christmas season, stand before a nativity scene to reflect on the mystery of the Son of God coming into our world as an infant over 2,000 years ago. If you have children or grandchildren, bring them and remind them of the story of Jesus’ birth and call their attention to the figures in the manger — infant, Joseph, Mary, Shepherds, Magi or Kings and the animals.
I pray that you and your family will have the blessings of the Christ-child, as depicted in the manger scene, this Christmas. May you be abundantly blessed during 2019.
The Rev. David O’Connor, is pastor of St. Mary Basilica and Assumption Catholic Church in Natchez, Mississippi. He has ministered in Mississippi since the civil rights era.
People in this community will experience Christmas in many different ways. Some will welcome family members from different places to celebrate Christmas in Natchez, some will travel to be with family members and friends out of town, some will spend Christmas alone in their home, approximately 400 individuals will eat Christmas dinner prepared at the Stewpot, and a number of people will serve as volunteers to prepare the Stewpot meal.
Some of the activities of Christmas morning will be the opening of gifts, the excitement of children and grandchildren, telephone calls, texts and emails to and from family members in this country or overseas, the preparation of delicious food in people's homes, reading and reflecting on messages, and sharing memories of Christmases past. I have the happy task of leading two worship services - 8:30 am at Assumption church and 10:00 am at St. Mary Basilica on Christmas day. My observance of Christmas began yesterday, on Christmas Eve, with worship services (Masses) at 4:00 and 9:00 pm at St. Mary and 6:00 pm at Assumption.
No matter how or where we celebrate Christmas, our minds and hearts are drawn to the town of Bethlehem where God's own son was born as a human being two thousand years ago. The sacred scriptures tell not only of his coming but also of the events that led to his coming and the consequences of his coming.
In brief, we learn the important facts. From all eternity it was the mind of God to create humankind to share his life and eternity with Him. The book of Genesis tells the story of the creation of the world and of humankind. When humankind turned from God, God promised a savior, and He chose one group of people, the descendants of Abraham, as his chosen people. But they often lost their way and walked in darkness, but God sent prophets (Hebrews 1:1-3) to encourage them and to remind them of his promise.
Finally, God sent his own son as a human being to bring light and to give us the signposts to lead humankind closer to him. The word became flesh (human) and made his dwelling among us as a human being; and we saw his goodness (as a human being) and his glory as the son of God (John 1:1-5, 9-11). The place and circumstances of his birth are told to us by Luke (2:1-14).
There are two words that are heard in church services during the seasons of Advent and Christmas -Incarnation and Emmanuel. Incarnation (also found in the Nicene creed) means God's son entered our world as a human being; he did not enter as an angel or a purely divine person. He felt the cold, the hunger, sadness at the death of Lazarus (his friend), tiredness, disappointment, fear of danger, loneliness and human temptations. All Old Testament names had a meaning, and the name Emmanuel meant God-among-us or God-with-us. The angel Gabriel informed Mary when she was asked to be the mother of the Savior that he was to be called by that name.
So, among the many meanings and traditions of Christmas the profound truth is that Jesus' birth gave a new dignity to being human. Until that point in human history, God sent angels as messengers to our world; and through the ages, God spoke through his prophets (Hebrews 1:1-6). Now God is sending his own son as one of us, a human being. God's own son has come among us in human not angelic form. He will understand our human condition and can relate to us. He will understand our brokenness, our fears and our insecurities. What we learn from this is that being human must be very good because god's son appears in human form. So for us the challenge is to be able to appreciate and embrace the gift of our humanness. Spirituality for us includes our humanness.
The life and teachings of Jesus have taught us what it means to be a good human being. At a pivotal moment in our lives for us Roman Catholics, it is baptism; we become the adopted sons and daughters of God and also the adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus. We promise to try to be like Jesus and therefore to live as a good human being.
One striking lesson for me from Jesus is his love and compassion for every human being - the leper, the public sinner, the blind, the lame, the possessed with evil spirits, the stranger and foreigner, and the people living in the margins. He was willing to care for and love other people (also a requirement for us his followers) even to the point of giving his life. He is often referred to as a 'man for others.' Another clear message in his life is keeping God the Father central and his obedience to the will of the Father, and his setting aside time to listen to the Father.
Our culture and our world needs his witness to help us appreciate the dignity of every human being. The lack of that appreciation is evident in violence in our world, the inhumanity of us human beings, sometimes the lack of appreciate for our own gift of life and health.
I am encouraged by many signs that the lessons of Jesus about the goodness of human nature and humans are evident in our society. I appreciate the generous outpouring of charity and good will in this community in recent weeks and throughout the year. This is a good time for you, the reader, to think about the good deeds you do and the people you care for outside the family. Also, think about the efforts you make to value your life and to stay physically healthy, and the efforts you make to keep balance and grace in your life. I think you also learn from Jesus when you try to learn about God and pray to him with some frequency.
I want to apply the message about the dignity of humanness to those in school and college. Every effort you make to discover and develop the special gifts God has given you is an acknowledgment of the life of God and his work in you. In doing this, you can better serve fellow humans and our world and also become more fulfilled individuals. The more aware we become of our gift of humanness the more likely we are to see the presence of Jesus in others.
Jesus continues to be present in human form among us. Look for him in the broken lives of people around us, in the hardships of the poor and needy, in the fears of the sick and elderly, in the frustrations of the young, and in his church and in people of faith who do his work. Strive to model your life on that of Jesus, and try to live and love as he did.
My wish during this Christmas season is that each of us rediscover the dignity of our humanness and that we strive to become the best that we can possibly. My prayer is that peace and joy will fill our hearts and homes at this time.