Christmas eve visitors to St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican expecting to see a traditional nativity scene will be surprised to find no stable, no manger, no hay, no sheep and definitely no Elvis.
In a move Vatican officials say is meant to “reflect a return to the story of the nativity as told by Matthew,” Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus will be shown in Joseph’s Nazareth carpentry workshop and not in the Bethlehem stable.
The presepe, or nativity scene, will feature three rooms, including the workshop, complete with “the typical work tools of a carpenter,” a “covered patio” and the “inside of a pub with its hearth,” the London Telegraph reported.
Moving the Christmas story 70 miles north from Bethlehem to Nazareth was inspired by Matthew 1:24-25 as rendered in the Catholic Bible translation:
“When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home; he had not had intercourse with her when she gave birth to a son; and he named him Jesus.”
The King James Version of the same passage does not translate the Greek as “home.”
Pier Carlo Cuscianna, director of technical services for Vatican City, told Catholic News Service he knew of the “polemic” in the press over the unconventional nativity display, but, he said, “I am certain Matthew reflected well on the meaning” of home in the passage used by Vatican officials to create the new design.
In the better known story from Luke’s gospel, the focus is on Joseph and Mary going from Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem to register for a census. Unable to find lodging, they join farm animals in a stable or cave where Mary gives birth and places the baby in a manger. Local shepherds, alerted in the fields by angels, come to the stable to pay homage. Matthew tells of the wise men, the slaughter of male children by King Herod, the family’s flight to Egypt and return to Nazareth.
Matthew, like Luke, states Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but a Vatican spokesman said, “It was time for a change, and a return to St. Matthew’s gospel.”
Another Vatican spokesman told the London Daily Mail placing the nativity in Joseph’s workshop better reflects the experience of ordinary people.
However, other sources said the move was part of a crackdown on “fanciful nativity scenes” erected in various cities around Italy in recent years.
In Naples, modern figures such as Elvis Presley and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, have been depicted among the carved figures of shepherds, wise men and angels adoring Jesus in the manger.
The nativity scene at St. Peter’s, inaugurated by Pope John Paul II in 1982, officially opens on Dec. 24 and will remain until Feb. 2.