The Symbolism of the Vatican’s Nativity Scene

Each year during Advent, the Vatican erects a nativity scene and a Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square to mark the Advent and Christmas seasons. Each year the nativity scene is different, and this year it is made out of sand from the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy.

More than 700 pounds of sand was trucked into St. Peter’s Square and it took several artists a couple of weeks to create this 52-foot artistic representation of the birth of Christ.

Fr. Matthew Spencer, OSJ recently discussed the Vatican’s nativity scene on St. Joseph’s Workshop. He said, “I know many people were joking around about this. Making a nativity scene out of sand sounds like a bad idea when you have the potential for rain. In fact, I heard people referring to the parable of Jesus of building on rock, not on sand.”

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“But I have to tell you, I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw this nativity scene. It’s really beautiful. I was actually really drawn to the image of St. Joseph standing next to our Blessed Mother by the manger with the Baby Jesus inside it.”

In a recent audience, Pope Francis commented on the symbolism of the Christmas tree, and also the symbolism of using sand in this year’s nativity scene. Pope Francis said that, “The sand recalls the simplicity, the smallness with which God showed Himself at the birth of Jesus, in the precariousness of Bethlehem.”

Fr. Matthew reflected on the pope’s words, and how we can relate the simple materials of the Vatican’s beautiful nativity scene to our own lives.

“I wonder if you and I can look at our own lives and recognize that sometimes we seem to be very simple and humble,” he said. “We seem to sometimes be made of material that is very common, we don’t have a lot of extraordinary skills, maybe. It feels like we don’t have a lot of extraordinary contributions to this world. But we can take that raw material that God has made us with – the raw materials of our life, our lifeblood, and grace that He injects into our life – and we can use it to create something beautiful for Him.”

“Maybe not as sculptors, maybe not as artists, but even more importantly than creating art is you and I being able to contribute love to the world, by the gift of free will that we’ve been given. To construct something far more beautiful than even those cathedrals, the nativity scenes, the beautiful religious artwork that we have. It’s the gift of love. It’s acts of charity, caring for the most vulnerable, respecting the most vulnerable, especially the unborn.”

Fr. Matthew reminded listeners that to become more Christ-like this Advent season means to accept simplicity and humility, and trust that the Lord can make something beautiful out of it. He said, “This time of Advent is a really wonderful time to do that, isn’t it? To really perform works of mercy, to show the world that we can take the raw material we have – the simple, humble material that God has given us to work with- and we can do something beautiful. We can do something incredible that will remind others of Jesus, remind others that God Himself wanted to come to you and me, wanted to be among us in a very small, simple way. So that you and I could take Him into our arms and not be intimidated by the presence of God before us.”

“He comes to us in simplicity, in the humility of Bethlehem, and wants us also to create something beautiful for Him. Cooperating with the grace that He has put into our lives to create beauty in this world of darkness.”

Listen to the full reflection below:

St. Joseph’s Workshop with Father Matthew Spencer airs weekdays at 7:00 p.m. Eastern/4:00 p.m. Pacific on Relevant Radio® and the Relevant Radio App.

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Stephanie Foley serves as a Digital Media Producer at Relevant Radio®. She is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where she studied journalism, and she has worked in Catholic radio for 12 years. Stephanie is a wife, a mother of three boys, and in her free time she enjoys reading, running, and really good coffee. You can find more of Stephanie’s writing at and on the free Relevant Radio mobile app.