When my brother was a toddler, he was excited to help set up our family's nativity scene. After arranging the usual cast of characters -- Mary, Joseph, shepherds and wisemen -- he placed one of his toy airplanes between the cow and sheep.
"What's that for?" we asked.
He looked at us with pity. Had we really forgotten our Sunday School lessons that quickly?
"For the flight into Egypt," he explained.
It wasn't the first time we had taken some creative license with the crèche. We girls saw the nativity scene as a sort of seasonal doll house before we understood its full religious significance. If we decided it was time for Barbie and Ken to add to their family, we'd swipe baby Jesus for a ride in the convertible. We'd contribute to the scenery, too -- if the shepherd turnout seemed low, we made Skipper trade her leggings and sweater for shepherd costumes we had cut from old pillow cases.
Our adaptations were a far cry from the first model crèche. St. Francis of Assisi, a Catholic deacon, wanted to impress the significance of Christmas on the residents of Grecio, Italy -- where he planned to assist at midnight Mass in 1223. He explained, "I want to enact the memory of the infant who was born at Bethlehem, and how he was deprived of all the comforts babies enjoy; how he was bedded in a manger on hay, between an ass and ox."
In a niche in the rock, next to the altar where Mass was said, St. Francis set up a manger with straw and animals. As he preached, on-lookers said they saw a vision of Christ in the manger.
Those attending Mass that night found the experience so moving, the tradition of having a model crèche has been imitated in churches and homes to the present day. We've glamorized them a bit since St. Francis' original manger, adding gilded figurines and, in the case of my brother, model airplanes.
As you look at the manger scene this week, look past the ceramic or plaster and see what St. Francis saw -- "how poor he chose to be for our sakes" so that, as St. Paul explained to the Corinthians, "by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9).
St. Francis had a special devotion to Christ in the cradle, the cross and the Eucharist -- to Christ becoming one of us, suffering for us and then sustaining us with his body and blood during our earthly journey.
Remembering the birth of Christ reminds us that he not only became man but also lived and died so that we could be with him for eternity in heaven.
The manger is a reminder and an invitation.
Alison Griswold is the director of youth ministry at St. Francis By the Sea Catholic Church. Follow her on Twitter @alisongriz. Read her blog at www.teamcatholic.blogspot.com.