As winter dark envelops and cold gathers us in, the Advent season provides an opportunity to experience moments of devotion and illumination. Father Czeslaw Krysa, diocesan director of the Office of Worship and author, has long considered this in relation to the crèche.
The crèche is a model scene of Christ's birth in the stable at Bethlehem with Mary, Joseph and others around the crib of Jesus. It is displayed in churches, homes and communities. According to Father Krysa, the crèche should not be seen as just an exhibit. He points to the original crèche scene of the 14th century fresco of St. Francis as a good example.
"According to the people who were there, Francis was conversing with the Baby Jesus," Father Krysa said. "Now, that is what I would call a devotional experience. A devotional is supposed to bring us closer to God. Whatever the instrument is, (here, a crèche, or the Infant Jesus statue), engenders that encounter with God."
Father Krysa cited an example of the youngest child in a family placing the infant into the manger on Christmas day as an interaction which gives more meaning than just being an exhibit.
"Already that's a prayer," Father Krysa said. "The wondrous tradition of moving the three kings, and their camels, slowly, until the Epiphany. For families who pray the rosary, could they not pray in front of the crèche? One of the fondest memories I've had as an adult is seeing a 4-year-old remove all the figurines from a family crèche set, which was low enough since it was under the tree, and tell himself the story of Christ's birth."
Father Krysa said a crèche set should be something parents can trust the youngest members of the family to interact with. He said it shouldn't be a case of it being so expensive that it is put far out of everyone's reach.
"That's more of a display," he said. "Interaction is very, very important."
Father Krysa described visiting the restored AM&A's animated Chistmas window displays, now in storefronts in Lancaster. "People come and enjoy them," Father Krysa said. "There may be some fun, and storytelling, but the power of the event remains in the display. We can walk away from a window. If we walk away from the crèche scene, we need to be changed, transformed inside our heart."
Father Krysa believes that when the community is actively involved in the design and setup of a Nativity scene and reenactment, the experience is deepened. He remembers vividly happening on such a scene when studying in Rome.
"On the eve of the Feast of Immaculate Conception, a couple of friends came to visit, so we went to Assisi that night," Father Krysa said. "We were walking though the town. It's mountainous, so we're going up and down these hills. We turn around, and there are these boys chopping wood and bringing hay over. We asked them what they were doing, and they said they were putting up their neighborhood crèche. Men were standing around talking about adding a little bit of a mountain (to the scene)."
Father Krysa also tells of a local man who repairs crèches, integrating local flora and fauna in the landscapes.
"The more interaction people have with the crèche, there's less of a sense that it's something to look at, and more that it's something to contemplate," Father Krysa said, "on various levels."
These considerations expand the theme of his book, "A Polish Christmas Eve." The book includes stories, carols and recipes of the Polish tradition of Wigilia, the "Vigil Supper." The book inspires community and devotion. That it became a Christmas bestseller was a surprise for Father Krysa.
"It's been a real joy, hearing from people and how they use it," Father Krysa said.
According to traditions in the book, the Wigilia celebration brings the whole year together incorporating foods from the garden, forest and stream, and items commemorating every season. Just as crèche-makers may incorporate local flora and fauna, Advent and Christmas devotions can be enhanced with personal connections, such as incorporating shells or stones from a vacation in the family crèche, or saving the best produce of the year to serve on Christmas Eve. Developing traditions with such intention can transform activities from display to devotion.
For those interested in crèches, SS. Columba-Brigid Parish in Buffalo has a display of more than 420 Nativity sets from 57 countries on display. Father Roy Herberger, pastor, arranges the collection in bright, spacious rooms on weekend afternoons from Advent to Epiphany. Groups may call to arrange weekday visits.
"My whole thing is, I would like to encourage people to evaluate how they put up their crèche scenes," Father Krysa said, "and to make them more interactive, more centered on the encounter with Jesus. Because that's why everybody's coming to the crèche anyway. The shepherds are coming to encounter Jesus. The animals are coming for the same reason. The kings, the same reason. The farm women are coming for the same reason. All that for the encounter. So the crèche would be an instrument of the encounter with Christ. And that's what I would call 'a devotional presentation.'"
The Polonia website describes the book, "A Polish Christmas Eve," as "a must for every Polish-American family." It's available online.