800 Years of Wonder: the Nativity Scene Exhibition at the Holy Land convent in Washington, D.C.

800 Years of Wonder: the Nativity Scene Exhibition at the Holy Land convent in Washington, D.C.

The Advent season is marked with a special meaning this year at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, in Washington DC. 2023 marks the 800th anniversary of the first nativity scene ever, created by Saint Francis of Assisi in the Italian village of Greccio on Christmas night in 1223. To commemorate the anniversary, the Franciscan Monastery is hosting an exhibition of hundreds of nativity scenes from all over the world.

The collections in the exhibition

The exhibition opened on December 3, first Sunday of Advent, and it is open until January 7. The exhibition’s main collection belongs to a local couple, Marguerite and Roger Sullivan, whose love for this Christmas tradition is what led them to start their collection of nativity scenes, which they have steadily built for decades. Their collection includes a total of over 500 nativity scenes from around the world. Their passion for the Christmas creche has been fueled over time by the opportunity to travel the world for work and to discover the same story, the same characters, reproduced in different ways in every corner of the globe.

The exhibition has been a recurring event at the Franciscan Monastery for several years, but this year it takes on new significance, enriched with new works, including homemade creches submitted by school children from the Archdiocese of Washington.

A Mystery for All Nations

The display of nativity scenes from all over the world is visible proof that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is relevant to all peoples. Indeed, the tradition of displaying nativity scenes, first inaugurated by Saint Francis eight centuries ago, is now an indispensable custom in the homes of Christians throughout the globe during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

The Incarnation is manifested differently in the culture of each human group, as expressed artistically through the nativity scene. It was this concept that Fr. Ramzi Sidawi, the Guardian of the Franciscan Monastery, highlighted in his homily during the first Sunday of Advent, just before the inauguration of the exhibition.

The plurality of nativity scenes teaches us to recognize the story of a living God who speaks to all peoples, capable of speaking all languages and of being reborn every Christmas. It is the story of a God-made-flesh who continues to touch the hearts of all. The nativity scene is a symbol that reminds us of the Almighty who came into the world in the form of a helpless child. The wonder of this paradox is what struck Saint Francis 800 years ago, and it and is what continues to amaze and enchant everyone today as we marvel in the simplicity of the nativity scene.

Filippo De Grazia