Gifts of the Maji : Gather 'round the Creche


Gather ‘round the Creche

by Fred Schubert

When the number two bus comes to a halt at its regular stop in front of Somerset Park, heads turn in unison to the window facing the park. The general traffic also slows down to take notice there. Drivers and passengers alike, briefly glance over to the park to see what has become a new tradition in our neighborhood.

What are they looking at exactly? What captures their attention so? They are admiring a little, gray grotto, just off the sidewalk. A humble and unimposing structure with a flashy star on top. Painted like a stone cave, it features an old, fragile plaster Christ Child comfortably swaddled in a manger crib of straw and hay and set behind a thin sheet of plexiglas. Flanked on either side of the babe, is St. Mary and St. Joseph, a shepherd, ox, ass, a camel and three gift-bearing Magi. Of course, it’s a nativity scene. A timeless, frozen tableau, of the most profound event that ever took place on planet earth. The Incarnation- God’s first coming, born a babe on the out-skirts of Bethlehem of Judea. The Incarnation, which ushered in, the beginning of salvation history and the Christian faith.

The Catholic lay apostolate called, 'Our Lady of His Mercy' Ministries, in Ottawa, has been erecting this public nativity scene for the past four years. For the last two years, it has been set-up in Somerset Park, in the Hintonburg neighborhood. For the two weeks before Christmas, this creche becomes Ottawa’s Bethlehem. A multitude of modern day Magi make their annual pilgrimage to this spot. Young and old, from every walk of life they come, bearing gifts and paying homage to the poor Christ and Christ in the poor.

Increasingly though, with every passing year, the public nativity scene is disappearing from the landscape of our cities. This is most evident in the United States, where reports proliferate of yet another legal ruling banning the public creche and other religious Christmas displays. Three years ago, in the case of the city of St. Ann, Missouri, historically a Catholic city, The American Civil Liberties Union, ordered the city remove it’s creche from in front of City Hall. It was declared unconstitutional and forbade any nativity scenes on city property in the future. Two years ago, in November of ‘98, at precisely the same time that“ His Mercy” asked for and was granted permission by the city to move it’s creche into Somerset Park, a creche in another city was being shut down. Quite by coincidence, it was in the town of Somerset, Massachusetts. A US District Court Judge there ruled in favor of removing the nativity scene, saying it “conveys to a reasonable viewer the constitutionally forbidden message that the town of Somerset officially supports Christianity.” Though in the end, the creche was allowed to remain, but only if a Santa Claus were placed in front. This way it would be seen as secular and not religious. The plaintiff who won the case was still disappointed. He was the Regional Director of the association called “American Atheists”. And just last year, a Cincinnati attorney actually attempted a legal battle to declare the federal holiday of Christmas itself, unconstitutional, because it was blatantly religious and promoted Christianity. He lost because it was decided that the Christmas holiday by and large is already considered a very secular event. I suppose “The Grinch” will always try to steal Christmas and the creche. Twenty centuries after the first Christmas and Jesus still waits for some real hospitality from our busy, over-crowded Bethlehem’s.

But not so in Hintonburg however! We have made Him room. Here, Christmas is vibrant and alive. Much activity revolve around the creche of the “Gifts of The Magi” program. At almost any hour of the night, solitary figures can be seen paused in silent prayer and adoration just standing there or even kneeling, sometimes leaving slips of papers with prayers written on them, like at the wailing wall. People are drawn to the creche to touch the invisible but so tangible mystery of God’s love revealed there. The mystery of The Nativity is of pure wordless wonder of perfect beauty. The creche icon helps us to contemplate. It will never lose it’s magnificence or power to enchant us and generate in us its warm, peaceful joy. Christmas is a seasonal, collective foretaste of heaven. And for those who prepare with hands and hearts open to share, they will enter into all the lavishness of The Father’s love-offering, the gift of His Son. Especially at Christmas, Christ’s Divine Heart is like a blazing hearth. It remains humanity’s enduring campfire to warm it’s hands and heart by, amidst the brutal winter of our world. At Christmas His Holy Heart blazes the brightest and is seen in heavens, in that star over Bethlehem. Christ’s star that heats up the whole Earth below.

The good news of Christmas is being proclaimed in our neighborhood, through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The gospel is being seen and heard. Indeed, ‘the spirit of The Lord is upon us and has anointed us to bring good news to the poor.’Luke4:18-19. Hearts are being healed and set free to give and receive love. And God is being found by a new generation of Magi. Captive and homeless hearts are being converted, transformed by the only power on earth that can - The Holy Spirit of love. There are many stories of the miracles our program has witnessed over these four years of the “Gifts of The Magi”.

“His Mercy” launched the “Gifts Of The Magi” primarily as an out-reach program with a particular mission. There are many among us who do not participate in Christmas and the sustaining warmth of Christmas does not reach them. They are sadly left-out, forgotten. So many people at that time, suffer quietly fighting depression, in their own lonely grottos of emotional darkness. They are scattered all over the city, on the fringes of life. Without a family, they spend Christmas alone. Who are they? We identified them as “ the homeless of the heart”. It is them and the lonely Christ in them, that “Gifts Of The Magi” locates, reaches-out to and serves.

About five hundred gifts are bought every year, carefully wrapped and distributed throughout the city. Many include a personal message from the patron Magi. Gifts are brought to the center on Wellington St.,where they are sorted and distributed to those who are always so grateful to receive them. “His Mercy” reaches chronic care hospitals, retirement homes, post-psychiatric facilities, and various temporary shelters for the homeless, new immigrants and refugees. Our patron Magi’s decide who they want to give their gift to and tag it for either a man, woman, girl or boy, with the approximate age and size if it is clothing.

Every year on the Sunday before Christmas, this year it will be December the 17th, friends and patron Magi assemble at St. Francis of Asissi Church which is also on Wellington Street, just a few blocks from the creche in the park. There, hosted by our three costumed Magi and a city councilor, “Gifts Of The Magi” sponsors a very special evening of Christmas choral music and family caroling. With a distinctive Canadian flavor, it is a free bilingual concert featuring a variety of multicultural and ecumenical choirs. The “homeless of the heart” are bused from all parts of the city. They are the guests of honor and a new gift is presented to each of them. Directly after the concert ends, the outdoor “Procession Of The Gifts” begins. As the bells of St. Francis ring-out through the neighborhood all the Magi in attendance move behind a police-escort for a short procession with candle light caroling down Wellington St. to the park. At the feet of Christ the gifts are presented to Christ in the poor. Then gathered ‘round the creche with the gifts of the Magi, shepherds offer prayers on our behalf. Several invited pastors Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic offer their prayers for unity and peace and all God’s children in the world. It is an evening remembered forever. Many have experienced their first true Christmas somewhere along the journey of that blessed evening.

How appropriate to celebrate our concert and begin the procession at St. Francis of Asissi Church. It was St. Francis who produced the first out-door nativity and began the tradition. He wanted everyone to find his Beloved Jesus. He knew from his own experience and journey of faith that anyone who seeks Him, finds Him. St. Francis discovered that the nativity scene is a powerful tool of evangelization.

Our Lady of “His Mercy” Ministries invites all Christians to a special challenge of faith this year. In this Great Jubilee of the Incarnation of our Lord in Bethlehem, we need to do ‘something truly beautiful for God’. Something truly grand that rises to the occasion of Our Lord’s birthday bash of centuries. Consider it a birthday present to The Lord. “His Mercy” Ministries challenges you to erect your own creche. Could you imagine, what would happen if every Christian family, religious community, parish, Christian business and organization celebrated this Great Jubilee of His birth by creating and erecting their own unique outdoor nativity scene? Think about it. It’s a simple thing to do. It’s a peaceful witness to the world around us, to our neighbors and fellow citizens, that we Christians emphatically believe, that God came to earth in Jesus Christ 2000 years ago. This is evangelization that anyone can do. Pray about it. It wouldn’t cost much if you made it yourself. We would certainly gain back some ground lost to the rampant secular humanist atheism.
Think of the joy and laughter we could give Our Heavenly Father, looking down upon thousands of little manger cribs that sing a chorus of praises and thanksgiving to Him for the mutual gift we have recieved in His Son, “Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today and forever.”

“His Mercy” needs your continued monetary and volunteer support. Our rent has increased more than fifty percent this year and with our many other monthly expenses, we can no longer just make do. In order for us to continue to serve and witness on the street we need your help. To ensure our work continues, we are asking our benefactors and friends if they might generously make a regular monthly commitment. In our eight year history of service to the Church and the poor of our city, we have never formally begged monetary assistance in this manner. We are forced to now. Thank you for all your support these past eight years. We remembered you in our Rosary and Chaplet of Mercy every day.

Meet you at the crib!