Nativity Scenes in the Chapels
Tracing its roots back to St. Francis of Assisi, and before, there has been a strong and commendable devotion to erecting a scene depicting Jesus’ humble Birth in Bethlehem — a “Nativity Scene” or a “Creche” (a manger) – in one’s own home. This quickly became so popular, and rightly so, that the faithful desired to also have one in their churches.
The instruction of the Church, from the Book of Blessing, among other places, describes more about where the nativity should not be erected, than where it “should be placed.” This allows for a devotion area in any individual building and presents unique opportunities (and challenges).
“If the manger is set up in church, it must not be placed in the presbyterium. A place should be chosen that is suitable for prayer and devotion and is easily accessible by the faithful.” (Book of Blessings)
(The presbyterium is defined as: “that part of the church where bishops, priests and ministers perform their ministry. Large enough to permit the sacred rites to be readily seen and carried out, it is usually in an elevated part of the church….”) Dict of the Liturgy, CBP Publishing 1989.
Even with this flexibility, limited space in some churches caused the nativity scene to often be erected in the sanctuary anyway, or even in front of the altar itself. This was borne out of desire to have one, but having no appropriate place to erect it within the guidelines of the Church. Our Worship and Spiritual Life Commission has been studying this for each of our three chapels for some time now, in an effort to be as faithful as possible to the guidelines of the Church, while making the best use of the opportunity and availability in each chapel’s specific setup, so that the Nativity Scene is a profound moment of reflection and devotion.
In setting up these scenes, first and foremost the main elements of the Sanctuary should not be moved, namely: The tabernacle, the Ambo, the Altar, the Presider’s Chair. Additionally, there are other important objects that should not be moved, namely, the Baptistry.
“The baptistry or the area where the baptismal font is located should be reserved for the sacrament of Baptism and should be worthy to serve as the place where Christians are reborn in Water and the Spirit. It may be situated in a chapel…..or in some other part of the church easily seen by the faithful…..” –General Introduction to Christian Initiation, #25
Based on these guidelines, the crèche is set up in such a way at the more limited space of St. John’s such that the location of the presider doesn’t change and it is not in front of the altar. At St. Patrick, we have been moving the Baptismal Font – and will again this year – but only because there is a plan for it to be permanently relocated in another visible area of the Church (more on that as we get closer to the Baptism of the Lord).
While we have room for such accommodations in St. Patrick, there really isn’t any place to move the Baptismal Font in Sacred Heart in a permanent way. Therefore, this year, in an effort to follow the church’s instruction as closely as possible AND to make devotional prayer (especially for families with young children) as accessible as possible, we will be setting up the Nativity Scene in the main gathering space of Sacred Heart (the entrance from Moniteau Street). We would then no longer have need to literally disassemble the baptistry area, the Crèche would not be in the sanctuary, and it would still be very accessible for prayer on the way in and out of Church for Mass as well as for prayer outside of celebration of Mass in general throughout the week.