Fr Anonymous on time-worn rural ways and the accumulation of forgotten years

The Epiphany will come and go in this rural backwater without disturbing the general post-Christmas somnolence overmuch. Encouraged by higher authority, we have given in and transferred the observance to the nearest Sunday. This certainly has had the effect of increasing the number of people present, but did not suit the old-calendrists among us.

Diverse works

Epiphany is, generally, the moment when I begin to wonder whether St Francis did the right thing in inventing the Christmas Crib. If you can persuade the ladies who always set it up in good time for Advent Sunday not to put all the cast on stage at once, it’s not so bad. Some Cribs do succeed in bringing you to your knees; others are so grand and elaborate as to lose the point rather (I remember in the Seventies seeing one with hot and cold running water). A few are so mean and perfunctory as to make you wonder why they bothered.

In our little group of parishes we range from what looks like one of Mother Maribel’s early efforts (a bit chipped here and there, with both the Holy Infant and his step-father lacking a detachable arm) to a moderne set made by a talented worker in hessian, straw and heavy-duty embroidery wool. Here the animals all look a bit like overgrown mice, and it’s hard to tell Our Lady from Shepherd 3. However, the whole thing is rustic and brown enough to look thoroughly and authentically Franciscan.

No, what comes close to being an annual occasion of sin for me is the Crib in the smallest and remotest of our villages. Here the stone high altar stands on four slender pillars, leaving ample space underneath for any number of coffers of relics of the saints. Just the spot for the Crib! The frontal is dispensedwith, and a very Christmassy (not to say Christmas-cardy) painted backdrop under the altar sets the scene. The lowly cattle shed stands at what used to be the Gospel corner. From beneath the altar, the shepherds trudge their snowy way to the stable. Nothing wrong with all that; in fact the whole effect is rather engaging. But come Epiphany…

Over the top

All the figures of this Crib are quite distinctive in design and modelling, and were clearly not mass-produced; but the three mystic strangers are simply over the top. ‘Camp’ is not the word. Their glorious accoutrements include dinky little handbags, presumably for carrying their royal gifts. They make their way towards Bethlehem from the Epistle corner, two of them mounted on fastidious, high-stepping camels. The third, of African extraction, precariously keeps his seat on an elephant, which is rearing up its forelegs alarmingly. The beast’s eyes suggest a nasty attack of must, and what it is doing with its trunk is almost beyond imagination (and I should think rather disagreeable to its rider).

This altar has an attached reredos, so that facing east is the only position available to the celebrant at Mass (indeed, it is the one much preferred by the bucolic congregation). How to compose oneself for a recollected offering of the Holy Sacrifice when confronted with such an extravaganza as one walks up the steps, is unfortunately not something they taught us in theological college.

However, the annual temptation to lose control of oneself lasts only for a day. Next morning, all will be cleared away. So if you’re tempted to make a pilgrimage to our Epiphany Crib (and some might say it would be well worth the detour), you will have to wait till next year. ND