As the Church celebrates the 800th anniversary of St. Francis creating the first Christmas crèche, one friar’s passion for Nativity scenes helped share the miracle of the incarnation with people in South Carolina.
As a child, Br. Jim Sabak’s came to love his grandmother’s wooden Nativity scene. As he grew older, arranging the figurines became a way to contemplate the miracle of Christ’s birth. He began to collect crèches in college, and as he discerned a call to Franciscan life, he learned of St. Francis’s connection to the crèche.
“I discovered that I was socializing with a group that also believed that it was important to physically see this event of our faith life,” said Br. Jim. “It was just one more sign that my attraction to the friars was something good, and that I should follow through with it.”
Today, Br. Jim’s collection has grown to 143 crèches. It illustrates the miracle of Christ’s birth as seen by people from around the world: Germany, Peru, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and beyond. Many include characteristics – like clothing or animals – that are unique to the place they originated.
In his grandmother’s set, for example, an elk stands alongside the traditional ox and ass, paying homage to her Northern Italian heritage.
“When I travel, I try to collect a Nativity set that was made locally,” he said. “In a way, the collection has become representative of my own life, the places I have visited and how the image of Christ is depicted in those places.”
These nativities from around the world found a temporary home at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Dec. 12, where they helped tell the story of the 800th anniversary of St. Francis and the Christmas crèche. The event, “Living Stations of the Crèche,” organized by the local Secular Franciscan fraternity of St. Padre Pio, led participants through 12 stations that told the story of Christ’s birth, ending with the crèche display at the church.
One of Br. Jim’s favorite sets, the Santons of Provence, France, includes painted clay figures of people going about their lives as Christ is being born.
“These types of sets are my favorites because they show that the Messiah comes whether you’re ready or not,” said Br. Jim. “Some people know that something historic has happened, while others are experiencing an ordinary day – and yet salvation is here for all of these people.
“There’s something to learn about looking at the Nativity like that: not just Mary, Joseph, shepherds and wise men, but all of the other characters who form part of the community.”
From now until Feb. 2, Catholics can receive a plenary indulgence by praying before a Nativity scene in a Franciscan church. A list of churches where the friars serve can be found here.