Me and the parish Christmas crib | Sunday Observer

Me and the parish Christmas crib

Rome, St. Peter’s Square Christmas crib Dec. 2017
Rome, St. Peter’s Square Christmas crib Dec. 2017

Rome: In my early teens I fancied watching adults prepare our church crib. Now I see them busy from early December each year in St. Peter’s Square, Rome. When friends gathered for cricket in the church compound, I drifted indoors. Near the minor chapel by the main altar, few seniors shared views on a new design for the parish Christmas crib. Each had brought his tool pack and a paper sketch.

Next weekend a farm-house type structure was ready, but covered from public view by a white screen. In the deep end there was a corner for the mule and ox beside the haystack and open fireplace. The space in the foreground had a layer of fine sand, scrubbed pebbles and herbs. A couple of sky-blue fluorescent tubes lay hidden along the edges to create celestial light.

Standing discretely aside, I watched them speak in whispers, or share a joke while singly and jointly on-the-job. If work was planned for the night somebody would bring a Thermos flaskful of gingered plain tea or nescafe which they shared with me. I inhaled it’s steamy aroma before sipping the ‘hot-hot’ brew. Knowing the type of church-hound I was, my elders hardly bothered to look for me. Parents knew that our habitual ‘hangouts’ remained within the radius of the girls’ school, the adjacent temple, and the churchyard.

My turn to help at the crib would dawn on Christmas eve when I was signaled to place the Heavenly Babe between Mary and Joseph surrounded by clay statues of shepherds and sheep. When the Gloria was sung at Midnight Mass and the crib lights came on, my heart throbbed louder sensing the role I played in its’ preparation.

As years passed, I volunteered with other parish youth in setting up the crib. Thus was the tradition passed on to younger teams and repeated by a second and third generation at my former parish of St. Anthony’s Church in Dematagoda (Colombo, Sri Lanka).

Six decades later, I am glad to share with readers, how I chanced to volunteer from recent years in preparing the ‘presepio natale’ at our parish of Chiesa San Timoteo in Casal Palacco, Rome, located so distantly away from my tropical birthplace.

After a near-30 yr. service at the UN-FAO, I volunteered to take turns with seniors and youth at the Caritas feeding centre while conducting free lessons in Sinhala and English on Basic Italian to Asian migrants in the parish hall.

At the time, Lankan friends working in the area used to make the church crib. Then, one year nobody showed up and I volunteered. Regulars who met for the Caritas mid-noon meal or came for my night classes, even Buddhists, designed, decorated and illuminated the church crib. I avoided use of the same structure trying to be creative and thematic in the design, but always focusing on the eternal Message of Christmas, ‘Glory to God in the Highest’.

Inspired therefrom, my rickety model of a fishing boat readied few years ago for the Birth of Jesus lay on a maxi-sized map of Italy. It seemed to me a fitting place for the Prince of Peace to be Born between Mary and Joseph (see pix) – the Holy Family symbolizing Faith, Hope and Charity.

Readers may remember the visit of Pope Francis in Nov. 2013 to pray at the fishing port of Lampedusa for thousands of migrant families – mainly Muslim migrants - who drown in the Mediterranean along the southern coast of Italy.

At Holy Mass the Pontiff celebrated on an altar made from remains of a capsized boat, he lamented on ‘the globalization of indifference.’ Emphasizing on the need to aid and assist the ‘hopeless’ poor the Pope added, “We have become used to the sufferings of others; it doesn’t concern us; it doesn’t interest us; it’s none of our business !”

But, … the cry of some Roman critics who reacted to my boat theme depicted on panels in the background of drowning migrants, re-echoed as vibrantly as the stubborn indifference of certain European nations to respond to the plight of thousands of boat people whom fishermen and national coast guards continue to rescue, medicate, feed and shelter at temporary camps along Italy’s southern coast which is not too far from the Libyan costal belt.

Thus, even though themes and designs changed each year, I ensured that the eternal message, ‘Peace on earth to all men of goodwill’ would emanate from within the crib.

However, the most promising sign I experienced was just last December 2016 when young children with parish youth joined me to finalize the crib. They brought home-made props artfully modeled and painted on ‘opened-out’ medicine boxes which were laid out among farmhouses, tiny windmills and even water fonts to amplify the Bethlehem scene.

How happy and fulfilled everybody seemed on Christmas Day, assembled with families and friends in front of the parish crib. Without doubt, all catechists and adults must have sensed that inner joy from the voluntary gesture of parish youth and children to help uphold and carry forward one of the most significant age-old Christian traditions which St. Francis of Assisi proclaimed and propagated from his first Christmas crib in Greccio, Italy (AD 1223).

Let us therefore help cherish this symbolic tradition for future generations the world over to enjoy throughout Christmastide each year! Happy Christmas! Buon Natale! Subha Nattal dear Lankan readers from the Eternal City!

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