The Roman basilica of Sts. Cosmas and Damian tends to elude the casual tourist and the hurried pilgrim, although it’s right off the Via dei Fori Imperiali between Trajan’s column and the Colosseum. A visit at any time is worthwhile, as the apse mosaics are among the most spectacular in Rome — sixth and seventh century work that somehow anticipates twentieth century art deco. Sts. Cosmas and Damian is particularly striking during Advent and Christmastide, though, because it’s also home to one of the world’s most colossal creches.
Six yards long, four yards high, and three and a half yards deep, the nativity scene is Neapolitan in inspiration and execution, and dates from the 18th century. Buildings and bridges are made of cork; human and animal figures are carved wood or ceramic. In addition to Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, the creche includes the three kings (with five camels and three horses), twenty-nine angels of various choirs, and some seventy-five men and women — among them, a chestnut vender, a fruiterer, a miller, a man harvesting grapes, a piper, an innkeeper, a fisherman, a butcher, a hunter, a soldier, and a blind man, plus the usual array of shepherds. Two people are sleeping and one family is caring for another newborn child. The animal kingdom is represented by five cows, one calf, two donkeys, a mule, a dog, two goats, and twenty-three sheep, in addition to lambs, doves, birds in their nests, and hens with newly-hatched chicks.
Il Monumentale Presepio Napoletano is more than just a display grander than anything on New York’s Fifth Avenue, however. Its composition makes an important, if subtle, theological point, in that the cave of the Nativity is not in the center of the scene. The point? This is not a Redeemer who comes as we might expect a Redeemer to come, with trumpets blaring and everything pointing to the expected Messiah. No, this Redeemer comes into the world in the midst of everyday life, the life he will transform by the witness and sacrifice of his own life.
Pope St. Leo the Great, in a reading prescribed for the Liturgy of the Hours on December 17, made the same point, a millennium before Neapolitan artists created the Cosmas-and-Damian creche:
“The divine nature and the nature of a servant were to be united in one person so that the Creator of time might be born in time, and he through whom all things were made might be bought forth in their midst. For unless the new man, being made in the likeness of sinful humanity, had taken on himself the nature of our first parents, unless he had stooped to be one in substance with his mother while sharing the Father’s substance and, being alone free from sin, united our nature to his, the whole human race would still be held captive under the domain of Satan. The Conqueror’s victory would have profited us nothing if the battle had been fought outside our human condition. But through this wonderful blending the mystery of new birth shone upon us, so that through the same Spirit by whom Christ was conceived and brought forth, we, too, might be born again in a spiritual birth; and in consequence, the evangelist declares the faithful to “have been born not of blood, nor of the desire of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
The Redeemer comes, not to fetch us out of ourselves but to unite our humanity to his divinity so that we might be called children of God. This Christmas, the Church in America anticipates at least four years of grave challenge in its living of the Gospel of life. The best response to that challenge is for each of us to become the saints our baptism calls us to be. The Neapolitan creche at Sts. Cosmas and Damian is a reminder that, for most of us, that sanctity will be achieved amidst the quotidian realities of daily life — which just happens to be where the Redeemer of the world was born.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.