Spotted at a church nativity scene in France
My favorite photo this month! This stopped me in my tracks. Let me explain.
I was on a trip with my husband, and brother and sister-in-law, in early December, 2022 to visit some of the Christmas markets in Europe. My husband LOVES Christmas; he starts watching Hallmark movies and listening to Christmas music in November. He’s the one who decorates our house inside and out. I used to complain (a bit) but I now understand that it brings him much joy.
One of the biggest and most festive Christmas markets is in Strasbourg, France (links below). It’s called Capitale de Noël, or the capital of Christmas! When we arrived on a bus, we had no idea what was in store and it truly was a delight for the eyes, and every other sense. My husband was. In. Heaven.
Before long, we headed for the church. This was the high point of every city for me on this trip, and the Notre Dame Cathedral of Strasbourg towers over the city. (For a couple of hundred years it was the tallest building in the world!) Here’s what the entrance to the church looked like:
And here’s what those massive doors looked like from inside:
Every church we went into on this trip gave me these feelings: first, awe. Then a quieting down as the atmosphere of quiet and reverence settles over me, and I find a place to sit, think, feel, and pray. Always, too, a feeling of tension—these churches took massive amounts of money and power to build, and were often something of a power statement by rulers or bishops. And yet…they carry the hopes and dreams, sorrows and joys, prayers and laments, Scripture and songs and worship, of people longing for God. It’s in the stone and wood and the tapestries and the flickering candles (my friend Patrick in Ireland taught me that candles are prayers). God meets his people when they call out for Him, and that happens in this church, despite those who have co-opted the building, the worship, and the Name. I think about those people over the years as I sit surrounded by modern pilgrims. We, too, are longing for more of God.
Then I notice, over to the right, through the candlelight, a Nativity scene. It stretches at eye level a hundred feet along the right wall of the church, about half life-size. I wander over and see Mary. Then I see what she’s holding:
It couldn’t be. No. Is it? Yes! She is holding a book! I stand and stare. I’ve never seen a Nativity like this before. And this one is, let me check, over a hundred years old?!
There’s so much to think and say about this, but for the moment, I want to remember and carry this image with me. It might not be completely historically accurate (she would have been holding a scroll or tablet, not a bound book) but it’s the thought that counts here. Someone thought to consider, and portray, Mary as educated, informed, literate, and as someone who pored over the Scriptures.
I searched and couldn’t find anything on the history of this nativity scene—who created it, or why Mary is portrayed this way, but I knew this: I had never seen anything like it, and I love it so much. Mary is the most prominent woman in the New Testament and we have sold her short in our portrayals. Mary was a contributor to the Gospels and we have not acknowledged her as such. More about that on another day, but for now, maybe this photo will make you, like me, think and smile and wonder.
For more, here are a few key links:
From a reader named Edna: “So beautifully written. That is a very powerful scene. As a Catholic it represents the annunciation. This explains the display somewhat. https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/o/our-lady-of-the-book.php” — Susy again: Thank you for this link, Edna. As a Protestant, I still have much to learn from my Catholic sisters and brothers!
Here is more of the historic Nativity Scene at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Strasbourg, France. I had a hard time finding a video but finally found this one and it’s pretty good visually—the Nativity Scene starts at about 1:20 in the video.
If you love Christmas too, here are two videos of the Strasbourg Christmas market: Here’s a short video, and here’s a longer one.
QUESTION GIRL QUESTION: Have you ever seen a Nativity like this?
By the way, this Substack is all about asking questions about women in the Bible or the Church. Do you have any questions? Email me at email@example.com and your question may appear anonymously here on Question Girl!
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