O Emmanuel, our king and law-giver, hope of the nations and their saviour, come and save us, O Lord our God.
Amen, Come, Lord Jesus.
You can listen to this antiphon, sung in its original Latin form, here.
God with us; alongside us; amongst us. It’s an outrageous idea really. Difficult in this day and age to capture the radical nature of the concept, so familiar to us is the Christmas story and the figures who populate it. The challenge for us every Christmas is to re-encounter some of the shock; to rediscover the newness of the dispensation Christ stands for. In an increasingly commercialised context and one in which secular rhythms dominate, this is not always easy.
But that doesn’t mean that all secularity is undesirable. In fact “God with us” means that God is in secular contexts, just as much as he is in sacred ones. The whole point of the Christmas story is exactly that, although sometimes we seem to try and separate God off from what he came to immerse himself in.
In Provence there is a lovely Christmas tradition that understands that perfectly. A Provençal Christmas is not complete without a stable-scene complete with all the players – Mary, Joseph and the new-born baby, the shepherds and an angel, the ox and the ass and some wise men, who are usually positioned some distance away at Christmas, and moved nearer as Epiphany approaches on 6th January.
These scenes are set up at home and many people have their own set of Christmas crib figures or “santons”, as they are called, made out of painted clay, or wood, that come out each year. Christmas crib scenes are not, of course, unique to Provence – ever since St Francis of Assisi introduced the idea in the 12th C, they’ve become a popular part of seasonal decoration in churches all over Europe and beyond.
The thing that is unusual about the Provençal versions is that they don’t just include the normal Nativity cast. Mary and Joseph are joined by figures representing ordinary folk about their ordinary business.
The shepherds, with assorted sheep, are accompanied by a shepherdess and the shepherd’s wife who doesn’t want to miss out on the excitement and joins the menfolk, with a half-spun spindle of wool still in her hands.
A “bûcheron” or woodcutter tags along, with his packed lunch tied up in a spotty handkerchief and a bundle of wood on his shoulder. With him is a melon-seller, with a basket of orange-fleshed melons, (from the local growing centre in Cavaillon, of course!), a woman selling freshly-cooked snails from a tureen, with a business-like ladle, and a baker, in an apron dusty with flour, with a big basket of newly-baked loaves.
Most of the figures carry something to offer, however humble, to the infant Jesus and to one another, to sustain them on the journey to Bethlehem. Only the hunter carries nothing – it would be wrong for him to hunt and kill the creatures of the garrigue on the way to Bethlehem, so there is nothing in his hunter’s satchel and the only gun he carries is a toy one.
A gypsy lady skips behind, with a jolly tambourine and a baby of her own, in a sling on her back. The traditional ox and ass are joined by a cockerel, a hen and chickens, even a wild boar that has come down from the slopes of the Alpilles. A lavender-seller treads carefully among the crowd, in order not to spill anything from her tray of dried lavender from the blue, summer fields at the foot of Mt Ventoux and an elderly lady with a broom, still busily sweeping, comes along to see what the fuss is about. There is a woman with a basket of new-laid eggs and a man with a crate of poultry for sale, on his head, on his way to market.
Everyone has a place. No occupation is too humble, or insignificant, to be represented and no one is excluded.
There is even a place for the ne’er do wells and the mean-spirited, for “God with us” does not just mean “God with the good and the saintly”. So, among the travellers, you will find “Margarido”, the mean, rheumaticky, old woman, who rides her donkey apart from the others and carries a basket of goodies exclusively for her own private consumption. The basket is cunningly covered with a white cloth, to keep prying eyes away from the evidence of her selfishness. The other figures are not fooled – they know her game but they laugh indulgently at her – they know she is the poorer because she cuts herself off from the joy of sharing and giving.
There is a gruff thief too, with a poacher’s knife in his belt, who holds himself apart from the joyous throng. He has spent his whole life, so far, stealing from and cheating his neighbours. But here, on the way to Bethlehem, a pretty dancer smiles engagingly at him, as she pirouettes and leaps for joy, and he smiles back, despite himself; “Grasset et Grassette”, the penniless, elderly couple who have spent their whole lives giving to others, even though they have very little themselves, hold out their hands to him, in generous welcome, and his heart melts for the first time.
The figures invite interaction and are not absolutely static. Children get the idea of this immediately so you may find that the melon-seller, originally placed some distance away, moves closer and starts hobnobbing with Joseph; that the gypsy woman ventures inside the stable for a cosy chat, comparing new-mother notes, with Mary;
You may notice that the washer-woman, tired of lugging along her heavy basket of laundry, has deposited it behind a strategic, paper bush so that she can travel more easily. The fierce “sanglier”, or wild boar, may lurk moodily most of the time, in the background, behind some bottle-brush pine trees, but sometimes he feels benign and beds down with the chickens and the donkey. The wise men move closer to Bethlehem along a mantel-piece or book-shelf, as the days pass, along with their camel(s), and you may spot an elephant carrying the wise men’s baggage, as well as a camel-boy, in charge of looking after the animals on the long trek from the East.
Sometimes the angel, perched on top of the stable-roof, feels tired and lies down for a rest or comes in from the cold and watches over the proceedings from the stable eaves.
Perhaps the most endearing figure of all is the one known as “le ravi” – the Charismatic member of the faithful, who is so overcome with wonder and love that he holds his arms upraised, in adoration, as he gazes on the little scene before him.
The whole conception is both an enchanting conceit and a deeply serious communication of Christian theology. It reminds us that we too are invited to be part of the tableau; that in fact its only meaning is if we do become part of it in some sense.
Something to read: St Luke 2:1-20
Something to wonder about: This little prayer comes from an ancient English prayer book of 1514. How does praying it affect how you feel, about yourself? About the past, the present and the future?
“God be in my head
and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes
and in my looking;
God be in my mouth
and in my speaking;
God be in my heart
and in my thinking;
God be at mine end
and at my departing.”
Something to take it further: God with us is a reminder of the importance of togetherness, with God and with one another. Take half an hour out of the seasonal busyness to have a cup of tea or coffee with someone you know who might be lonely at this time of year.