by Anne Marie Murphy.
Have you ever spent time with a small child at a manger scene? A few months ago as I was working at St. Raphael’s, our handicraft center, a couple and their four-year-old daughter came through on a tour.
The parents were interested in our pottery, candle-making, and woodworking areas. The child, however, spied a Nativity set that was in our repair and restoration corner.
She wanted a closer look, so I got her a stool and lifted her up to the high counter where Mary and Joseph, shepherds and sheep, kings and, of course, the Baby Jesus were patiently waiting to be touched up with a little paint.
I asked her if she knew who these people were. "Of course," she said, and she pointed out Mary and Joseph, Baby Jesus, and all the animals. When I pointed out the kings, she corrected me as only a four-year-old can. "No! They are the Magi."
I could see that she had already been given a background of faith by her parents.
We were having such a great time discussing things that when her parents called her to go on to the next building, she told them she wanted to stay with the Nativity. They could, she told them, come back and pick her up later.
Her parents looked at me to see if this was all right. Delighted, I nodded yes. They went on to the gift shop, leaving us to our meditation.
I now understand my own mother’s heartache that she couldn’t afford to get us a large Nativity set with moveable figures when we were children. We did have a set, but it was small and the figures were all glued in place.
When we were older, we got a nicer one with moveable figures, but alas, it had no shepherds or sheep. Every year when we put it up, someone would say, "There are no sheep."
I don’t know if parents realize how important it is to have a set of unbreakable Nativity figures that a child can play with. In the opinion of Maria Montessori, who originated what is now called "the Montessori Method" of education, the hands of a child are the tools of learning for the brain.
Children learn by touch. That is why it is so important for them to be able to lift Jesus out of his manger and swaddle him or put him in his mother’s arms.
This is one of the ways they develop a personal relationship with Jesus.
(I know some adults whose fondest childhood memory of Christmas Eve is putting Baby Jesus in the manger.)
But back to this child who was visiting with me. We continued to explore the manger and its meaning.
She learned the words "swaddling clothes" as I showed her how Mary wrapped up Jesus. She pointed out that what I was using wasn’t really swaddling clothes. I agreed. She had seen me get a piece of bed sheet from our rag barrel.
We talked about how it had happened that a baby was placed in the animals’ feeding trough. She lifted the swaddled baby and placed him in Mary’s arms. She wanted the donkey and cow to be able to eat their dinner! I had never thought of that. What a wonderful image of the importance of sharing!
The animals continued to eat their dinner, and Mary was getting tired of holding Jesus, so she gave him to Joseph to hold because he looked big and strong.
Then, when the animals were finished eating, Jesus went back into the manger to sleep.
Later Mary took Jesus up on the roof to see the view, and some of the sheep came, too. (This particular Nativity set had three shepherds and lots of sheep.)
We talked about the sheep’s wool and said that maybe Mary had made the swaddling clothes out of it.
I decided to ask her about Jesus the Good Shepherd. Had she ever heard of the Good Shepherd? "Oh yes," she said, "I ‘read’ it in my Bible." Her parents were really passing on their faith.
So we talked about Jesus who came as a baby and grew into a strong man able to take care of many sheep. She sighed and said, "You know what? This is my most favorite toy of all."
The little girl’s parents came back a half hour later and were surprised to discover that she hadn’t moved from her stool. And she wasn’t thrilled at the idea of leaving either!
Her mother promised that, when they got home from their vacation, they would get out their Nativity set. She, the little girl, would not have to wait till Christmas.
In my experience with small children, both this little girl and the children whom I taught by the Montessori method, any time of year is a good time to explore the meaning of the Nativity figures.
Because children delight in the sheep and donkeys and in seeing the Baby Jesus small like them, and because the Holy Spirit is able to work freely through their innocence, every visit to a manger can bring them some new aspect of this unfathomable mystery of God made man.
Any time, and especially Christmas, is the right time to explore with a child the mystery of Jesus coming as a baby. If you do so, your own faith, too, will be enriched.
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