Picturing the scene of Jesus’ arrival

Memories of decorating the manger scene as young children are now reminders of the importance of preparing for Christ’s birth, say some local faithful.

Father Luis Granados, D.C.J.M., parochial vicar at St. Mary Church in Littleton, remembers singing Advent songs, lighting candles and decorating a Nativity Scene as a young boy with his seven siblings and parents in Madrid.

“The house was completely decorated,” he shared about his family home. “In Spain, all the houses had a Nativity Scene with water, sand and rocks. The one with a Joseph, Mary and animals was in the dining room, in the most important place. This is where we put the crib. The crib was empty because Jesus was not born.”

His mother would hide the baby Jesus figurine until Christmas. Before then, he and his siblings would add straw to the Nativity Scene and crib throughout the liturgical season of Advent.

“The idea was we wanted to prepare the crib for baby Jesus so he could be warm and not on the stone that was cold and hard,” he explained. “During the day we would make more sacrifices of charity, patience and not complaining. Then we would be able to take a little piece of straw and put it in the crib.”

Moving the straw became symbolic for preparing their hearts for Christmas.

“The idea is the straw is our heart being prepared to welcome Jesus. We are preparing the home and we are preparing our hearts to receive him,” Father Granados said. “They are images I keep in my heart. When Advent comes, I remember this.”

Catholic families adopted the practice of setting a Nativity Scene in the home after St. Francis of Assisi first started the tradition in the 13th century. The scene spread throughout Italy and later into Europe and the Americas. Christians today use the mangers as a reminder of the reason for celebrating Christmas, the moment when Christ became man to enter the world and save sinners.

Daniel Silva, a 20-year-old seminarian from Chile, continues his family’s tradition of decorating a manager at Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary.

“It’s a gift of God to make the representation of the important event that happened in our history,” he said.

The Nativity Scene he and fellow seminarians Manuel Alarcon, 20, Hernaldo Arrieta Rojas, 21, are creating is more than the manger scene. They use figurines, sand, materials for landscaping, clothes and structure to depict Biblical stories surrounding the Nativity.

One area shows an angel declaring to shepherds the child’s birth. Another shows the wise men traveling to adore the Christ child, Herod and his command to kill boys, and Joseph and Mary fleeing into Egypt.

“It’s a spiritual help for me because I can come out of myself and give my talent for evangelization,” Alarcon said. “And it’s a way of catechizing children.”

He said children will view the Nativity Scene and ask questions, giving him a chance to share the Christmas story with them.

As a child, his own family in Chile did not decorate their home with a Christmas tree. Instead they spent time decorating a Nativity Scene, which he said is a reminder of Christ’s humble act of becoming a little child.

“In the end, it’s beautiful,” he said.

RM seminary Nativity Scene (2)

Seminarians are constructing a Nativity Scene at the Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary to share Christ’s birth and the Biblical evens that occurred at the time.

Midnight Mass Livestream
The Office of Communications will broadcast the midnight Mass with Archbishop Samuel Aquila starting 11:45 p.m. Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, from the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Visit www.archden.org/livesream to watch the Mass online.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.