“Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

With these words, “the shepherds respond to God who comes to meet us in the Infant Jesus by setting out to meet him with love, gratitude and awe,” writes Pope Francis in his apostolic letter, Admirabile Signum, On the Meaning and Importance of the Nativity Scene.

“Thanks to Jesus, this encounter between God and his children gives birth to our religion and accounts for its unique beauty, so wonderfully evident in the Nativity Scene,” the Holy Father explains.

For more than 2,000 years the story of the Nativity of Jesus has been recalled in poetry, prose and hymns, and expressed in myriad art forms. Inspired by Scripture, holy men and women of the Church pronounced their faith in the mystery of Christ’s birth in ways that would become important elements of Christian tradition.

The most well-known of the traditions, the manger scene, is said to have been first created by St. Francis of Assisi. The story is told by St. Bonaventure, who recalled that in 1223, St. Francis visited the town of Greccio to celebrate midnight Mass. In order to accommodate a full congregation, St. Francis set up the altar in a niche in a rock near the town.

Born of his desire to nurture a love of Jesus in the hearts of those present, St. Francis brought the Nativity to life, in a sense, by preparing a manger, complete with hay, an ox and an ass.

As St. Bonaventure writes, “The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter his name for the tenderness of his love, he called him the Babe of Bethlehem.”

St. Francis’ profound preaching carved the image of the birth of Christ into the hearts of those at Midnight Mass, especially those who could not read and would have no opportunity to study the Bible.

Throughout the centuries since then, the Christmas crèche has become a symbol of devotion and “part of the precious yet demanding process of passing on the faith,” writes Pope Francis. Reflecting on the mystery of the Incarnation, Pope Francis observes, “The crèche allows us to see and touch this unique and unparalleled event that changed the course of history, so that time would thereafter be reckoned either before or after the birth of Christ.”

When the shepherds stood before the Nativity Scene, like those who have stood before a Nativity Scene in all the years since, they saw Jesus born into a family, a community of love and relationship, his first bed a feeding trough for animals. Poor and disenfranchised as they were, the shepherds, and all who come to find Jesus, are welcomed by Mary and Joseph.

“The presence of the poor and the lowly in the Nativity Scene remind us that God became man for the sake of those who feel most in need of his love and who ask him to draw near to them. Jesus, ‘gentle and humble in heart,’ was born in poverty and led a simple life in order to teach us to recognize what is essential and to act accordingly. The Nativity Scene clearly teaches that we cannot let ourselves be fooled by wealth and fleeting promises of happiness. …” the Holy Father stresses.

With his apostolic letter, Pope Francis encourages the faithful to maintain the beautiful family tradition of preparing the Nativity Scene which is “like a living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture,” not only in the home but wherever possible.

“As children,” writes Pope Francis, “we learn from our parents and grandparents to carry on this joyful tradition, which encapsulates a wealth of popular piety. It is my hope that this custom will never be lost and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived.”