For the past ten years I have been working with a group of Subanen artisans on a livelihood project. Every year we design Christmas cards that simultaneously celebrate the story of God’s Creation and the story of God’s Incarnation. This year the Subanen artisans are carefully crafting images of Jesus in the manger within five ever-expanding settings from the tiny stable in Bethlehem to the vast heart of our spiraling Galaxy. While they craft cards, I have the task of crafting a reflection – with a lot of help from St. Francis – about the meaning of their cards.
St. Francis is credited with instituting the Christmas custom of setting up manger scenes in our homes and churches. The story goes that shortly before Christmas in 1223, Francis encouraged the people of the town of Greccio to reconstruct a manger scene in a cave near their town. He explained to the people: “If you want to celebrate the Feast of the Lord at Greccio, hurry and diligently prepare what I tell you. For I wish to recall to memory the little child who was born in Bethlehem. I want to set before our bodily eyes the hardships of his infant needs.” The manger scene touched the hearts of the people of Greccio, and it continues to touch our hearts today.
Francis’ words made it clear that he did not intend the manger scene to be a cute and cozy recollection of Christmas. Instead, he wanted to stress the “hardships” facing Jesus. The majority of Subanens live in conditions that resemble the hardships of that stable in Bethlehem. Traditionally, the Subanens lived off their habitat by gathering food and fuel from the forest and by small scale farming. Sadly for the Subanens, the global economy is quick to take their land, timber, and minerals, but it has no time to care for the Subanens. In the name of rapid “progress,” loggers and miners have plundered and continue to plunder their land. Stripped of their fruitful habitat the Subanens are left impoverished.
The irony is that the impoverished Subanens and their plundered habitat can only be saved by progress, a wholesome progress that cares for life in its integrity. Again, St. Francis can guide us. The saint trusted totally in the providential love of God. He called it “holy poverty.” In modern social and ecological terms, holy poverty is simply wholesome living. It means practicing lifestyles and crafting economies that trust in God’s love by living creatively and joyfully within the limits of God’s Creation. Wholesome living is what happens when people and societies “live simply so that people (like the Subanens) can simply live.” Only this kind of living can guide our economies to value people and the Earth more than it values wealth.
For St. Francis, the manger scene – with its images of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, magi, animals, plants, sky and natural forces – was a miniature representation of the entire Earth community. Our wholesome participation in that community creates a healthier home for all, and honors the Lord of Creation.
At a table near me the Subanen artisans – Enday, Edith, Thata, Marisa, Juvy, Mercy, and Lisa – continue their card crafting. They are meticulously inlaying images of a kneeling Mary as she places her newborn son in the manger of our blue green Earth. I’ll end this reflection with a verse to honor their work:
On wood and straw
He rests his head;
His manger bed.
Enfolds the birth
Of the Word
Made flesh on Earth.
Her open arms said,
“Let it be.”
God’s Love now shares