Reinventing the Belén

I stayed for three years in a parish in Rome while I was doing my Masters studies. There in that cozy community of Parroquia di Santa Caterina da Siena I first caught glimpse of their peculiar nativity scene. Because Jesus was laid in a manger, the nativity scene is known in Italian as a presepe, from the Latin word praesepium, meaning “manger”. What makes their manger stand out is that you find it at the heart of the contemporary life of man. You’ll find therefore the nativity scene beside a ristorante, or along the famous landmark ruins of Rome like the Coliseum or the quaint alleys of Campo dei Fiori. It made me think how rich the Christmas nativity scene has evolved into its present look from the moment it was first conceived.

Not everyone knows however that it was St. Francis of Assisi who popularized what has become a regular Christmas fixture. The Gospel of Luke though remains to be the ultimate basis of the Christmas crèche above all in certain details of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (2:7).

On his way back from Rome on 29 November 1223 Francis passed by the caves in Greccio and it reminded him of the countryside of Bethlehem. He had earlier visited the Holy Land and saw for himself the birthplace of Jesus. Other accounts would trace back the inspiration for the “Poverello” to the mosaics in the Roman Basilica of Saint Mary Major depicting the birth of Jesus and where ancient tradition claims to preserve the wooden panels of the manger. And so fifteen days before Christmas, Francis asked a local to help him realize his desire “to bring to life the memory of that babe born in Bethlehem, to see as much as possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he was laid upon a bed of hay”. These are the humble origins of this lovely tradition which according to Francis’ biographer, Thomas of Celano, “from the nativity scene of that Christmas in 1223, everyone went home with joy”.

The Filipino counterpart of the presepe is the Belén which is a Spanish translation of Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus. The Eucharist undertones were very clear for St. Augustine who saw the close connection between the Savior being born in the manger where the animals are fed and His claim that He is “the living bread that came down from heaven.” In the latest Apostolic Letter of Pope Francis, entitled Admirabile Signum, he goes back to these origins and encourages everyone to continue the beautiful family tradition of preparing the nativity scene in the days before Christmas. The simple religious custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares is powerful evangelical tool.

Our parish, St. Jude Thaddeus in Naga City, resolved to heed the call of the charismatic Pontiff. We found an ally in the Architecture students of the University of Nueva Caceres under the leadership of Ar. Mariel May Gamalinda in realizing a genuine work of art that recalls its earlier origins. The unique nativity scene is inspired by the original Italian Presepe concept. The Parish Belén depicts, in a 4mx2.75mx.80m multi-material construction, the unique neighbourhood of the parish which is comprised by gated villages and the different sitios which harmoniously blend on account of the Parish where the Presepe is found. The call of Pope Francis coincides with our vision-mission which sees the parish as becoming a Synodal Church that listens, learns and shares the mission. -Fr. Francis A. Tordilla