The most recent apostolic letter of Pope Francis, “Admirabile Signum”) was signed in Greccio, Italy. Some may know the significance of Greccio, the mountain village where St. Francis created the first nativity scene in 1223.

Not surprisingly, this apostolic letter is quite unique: not a heavy, dogmatic treatise on some theological theme, but rather a reflection from a pastor on the meaning and the importance of the nativity scene. Sometimes called a crèche (which means a “crib”) or a “manger,” the scene portrays Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus at his birth in Bethlehem. Because there was no room in the inn Jesus was born in the humble surroundings of a stable, where he lay his head on straw. Pope Francis draws from this scene “a number of the mysteries of Jesus’ life and brings them close to our daily lives.” No doubt Pope Francis feels a particular closeness to his patron St. Francis during this Christmas season and Epiphany.

Many of us grew up with a nativity scene in our home. I remember very well the nativity scene that my mother put out. Though it was humble like the scene it represents, it was filled with beauty and wonder for me. I would sit before it and look at every element: Mary and Joseph gazing on the child, the child with outstretched arms, an ox and an ass looking wisely upon the crib, a couple of shepherds adoring, a lamb and a chicken a bit oblivious to the enormity of the mystery taking place. A gold star marked the spot, and a few paces away were the three kings, ready to present their gifts. This was the Gospel, the “simple and joyful proclamation of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.”

The apostolic letter highlights some of the elements of the nativity scene and what they mean. The “starry night” shows that, even in the darkness, some light shines through, giving hope that God never abandons us. The shepherds are the first “to see the most essential thing of all: the gift of salvation.” It is the “humble and the poor who greet the event of the Incarnation,” not the rich and the powerful. With the birth of Jesus, “no one is excluded or marginalized.” Many people (especially children) add figures to the nativity scene: a blacksmith, a baker, a woman carrying water, dogs and cats. “All of this speaks,” the Holy Father says, “of the everyday holiness, the joy of doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way.”

Central to the nativity scene are the figures of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. Mary is a mother who “contemplates her child” and who “does not keep her Son only to herself.” Mary invites us, like her, “to obey his word and to put it into practice.” Joseph stands by her side as guardian, the just man, who “entrusted himself always to God’s will.” But it is when we place the infant Jesus in the manger that the nativity scene comes alive. “In Jesus, God was a child, and in this way he wished to reveal the greatness of his love: by smiling and opening his arms to all.”

The nativity scene, simple as it is, allows us to comprehend what is incomprehensible: that God became a human person — for us and for our salvation.

Msgr. Brennan is pastor of St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland.