Theologian: Vatican’s Nativity Scene Signals Church with a Future

The Vatican’s 2020 Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square

In recent years, the Vatican’s Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square has featured art from different regions of Italy. This year’s Nativity has prompted intense critical reactions, over its divergence in style from more traditional scenes. The Nativity, which was produced by students at an arts high school in the late 1960s and early 1970s, includes not only standard figures like the Holy Family, but those of an astronaut and a centurion, too.

Against the critics, theologian Brian Flanagan wrote a defense of the Vatican Nativity in the National Catholic Reporter. Flanagan, who serves on New Ways Ministry’s Advisory Board, asserts that he loves the much-maligned scene for three reasons. The first two (an appreciation for the playfulness of Nativities and a need to reconsider what is considered aesthetically beautiful) are worthwhile considerations. But his third reason is more expansive, and a Christmas reminder for LGBTQ Catholics and allies that the church is ever-evolving. Flanagan, an ecclesiologist, argues that Catholics must not fall into the trap that the church is changeless. Rather, he writes:

Figures of an astronaut and a centurion in the Vatican’s 2020 Nativity scene

“. . . .  [W]e need to be on guard against the false aesthetic comforts of nostalgia, but also against the false ecclesiology that the church is changeless — or became so around the year 1600, preventing any further growth or development.

That is not an argument for rapid or radical change, for denial of the dogmas of our faith, or for embrace of newness for novelty’s sake. But change in time, development in history, adaptation to new cultures and peoples, is constituent of a living church made up of human beings. The church is called by God to incarnate the Gospel of Christ Jesus in all times and spaces, and through the power of the Holy Spirit it is inspired to do so in unexpected ways.

“As the official website of the exhibition suggests, this is ‘un Presepe per (ri)nascere,’ that is, ‘a Nativity to be (re)born.’ This Nativity, like the Second Vatican Council that partially inspired it, like the papacy of Francis, treasures the past and looks forward toward the continuing adventure of the church as we wait for the reign of God.

“Above all else, I love this Nativity, astronaut and all, because it reminds us that the story of the church, the story of the God who is, and was, and is to come, is a story with both a past and a future.”

As Christmas celebrations begin, let us celebrate not only the Incarnation and creative Nativities, but to the future of the Catholic Church which through our efforts will be marked by inclusion and justice for all.

Brian Flanagan, who is an Associate Professor of Theology at Marymount University, Virginia, has written two Scripture reflections for Bondings 2.0, which you can find here and here.  His next Bondings 2.0 reflection will be posted on December 27th to mark the Feast of Holy Family. 

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 24, 2020

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