Christmas Cribs in Church

And More on Bows During Mass

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ROME, DEC. 9, 2008 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Please give me the true teaching of the magisterium in regards to the use of statues and Christmas cribs in church or in chapels. Is it true that they may not be used in church, but only in the foyer or in the entrance? — A.W., Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

A: There is not a great deal of what could be deemed «magisterium» on the Christmas crib. Many Church traditions are customary and are not manifested in official norms.

There are, however, some official guidelines that manifest Church thinking on this subject. On the universal level the Directory on Popular Piety has some pertinent indications which emphasize its importance in the family and indirectly show that placing the crib in the church is perfectly acceptable.

Thus, No. 104 states:

«The Crib

As is well known, in addition to the representations of the crib found in churches since antiquity, the custom of building cribs in the home was widely promoted from the thirteenth century, influenced undoubtedly by St. Francis of Assisi’s crib in Greccio. Their preparation, in which children play a significant role, is an occasion for the members of the family to come into contact with the mystery of Christmas, as they gather for a moment of prayer or to read the biblical accounts of the Lord’s birth.»

This is corroborated by No. 111:

«At Midnight Mass, an event of major liturgical significance and of strong resonance in popular piety, the following could be given prominence: […]

«– at the end of Mass, the faithful could be invited to kiss the image of the Child Jesus, which is then placed in a crib erected in the church or somewhere nearby.»

From this document we can glean that not only is there no rule against placing the Nativity scene inside a church, but that it is a long-standing custom to do so.

Although paintings, mosaics and relievos have depicted the Nativity from ancient times, it is possible that one of the earliest representations of a crib was a chapel built by Pope Sixtus III (432-440) as a representation of the cave of Bethlehem. This tiny chapel, now completely lost, was adjunct to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, whose construction was initiated by the same Pope. The relics believed to be of the original manger were first placed in this chapel in the seventh century and are now found below the basilica’s main altar.

Although they have no legal authority outside of the United States, the U.S. bishops’ conference guidelines on church buildings «Built of Living Stones» makes some sensible suggestions on this topic that can be applied everywhere. To wit:

«124. Plans for seasonal decorations should include other areas besides the sanctuary. Decorations are intended to draw people to the true nature of the mystery being celebrated rather than being ends in themselves. Natural flowers, plants, wreaths and fabric hangings, and other seasonal objects can be arranged to enhance the primary liturgical points of focus. The altar should remain clear and free-standing, not walled in by massive floral displays or the Christmas crib, and pathways in the narthex, nave, and sanctuary should remain clear.

«128. Objects such as the Advent wreath, the Christmas crib, and other traditional seasonal appointments proportioned to the size of the space and to the other furnishings can enhance the prayer and understanding of the parish community.»

Other bishops’ conferences might have issued similar guidelines which should always be taken into account.

In setting up the crèche, therefore, care must be taken to locate it in such a manner that it does not impede the altar or produce an obstacle to movements, while at the same time making it easily accessible for devotional visits.

* * *

Follow-up: Readers’ Bows to the Presider

Related to the question of bows toward the celebrant and altar (see Nov. 25), a priest from Rhode Island asked the following question:

«Our tabernacle is located in the center of our sanctuary — where the main altar would have been years ago. The altar of sacrifice is placed between that and the people. I realize that the celebrant and ministers are to genuflect once when entering the sanctuary and once when leaving. But what recognition do we give to the tabernacle during Mass? The altar servers have to cross the sanctuary to present me with the book at the collect and at the post-Communion prayer. Should they give a head bow as they pass the tabernacle? When I cross the sanctuary to read the Gospel, do I give a head bow to the tabernacle or simply bow to the altar of sacrifice on which the Book of the Gospels has been placed?»

As on other occasions when addressing similar questions, we suggest that it is best to organize the location and movements of ministers so that they cross the sanctuary only when it forms part of the rite itself. If such movements prove unavoidable, then the ministers should cross in front of the altar.

It is best to avoid all movements that pass behind the altar, except when the deacon or priest goes to take up the Book of the Gospels.

That said, however, the general rule would be to always bow toward the altar, and there is no act of veneration toward the tabernacle during the course of Mass.

An exception is when the Eucharist is reserved in the tabernacle after communion is over. In this case, the priest or deacon genuflects before closing the tabernacle door. He would not genuflect if he opened the tabernacle for the ciborium at the beginning of communion because the Eucharist is already present upon the altar.

Spurious theological foundations for this rule of not venerating the tabernacle during Mass should be avoided, especially those based on a supposed opposition between the celebration and the reserved Eucharist. Let us state simply that during Mass the Church desires that all attention be focused on the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. It is no disrespect toward Christ in the tabernacle when his altar is venerated during Mass.

Some people might not grasp this, so having most movements in front of the altar, and consequently bowing toward the altar and tabernacle at the same time, avoids giving an impression of disrespect toward the tabernacle.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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