Rome Gets Rael; Blessing of the Bambinelli

An Unlikely Convention Gathers

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 16, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Last Sunday, while Roman Catholics lit the pink candle representing joy and hope in the midst of the Advent season, elsewhere in the city torches were brandished, reminiscent of the barbarian sacks and sieges of old. Romans bustling about making their Christmas preparations were astounded to encounter marchers attending the World Atheism Convention, held here Dec. 11-13.

Some 500 demonstrators, hailing from England, Italy, Germany and France, paraded through the city, waving signs and banners proclaiming "God does not exist" and "Monotheism is the root of all evil."

The atheists adopted Giordano Bruno as the patron for their convention. Giordano Bruno, born in 1548, had been a Dominican monk until 1576 when he renounced his order and his vows. He then fled to Switzerland, England and Germany, first joining, then getting excommunicated from, both the Calvinists and the Lutherans.

Refusing to renounce his teachings and writings that maintained positions such as the non-divinity of Christ, Bruno was condemned by the Roman Inquisition and consigned to the secular authorities. On Feb. 17, 1600, state authorities had Bruno burned at the stake in Campo de' Fiori, one of the pilgrimage destinations for this unusual crowd.

Ironically, Bruno's ideas make him a pantheist, who believes everything is divine, whereas the atheists believe nothing is divine.

The atheism convention drew members from sundry organizations bearing names such as "There Is No God," "Apostasy" and "Raelian Revolution." A few Satanists tagged along for good measure.

While most of these titles are self-explanatory, Rael was a new name in this city. It turns out that Rael was a French journalist who claimed to have been contacted by a 4-foot-tall, long-haired alien on Dec. 13, 1973, who explained that humans had mistaken these same aliens for gods and that indeed they were the founders of all the major religions.

Just as "children need to understand that there is no Santa, people need to realize there is no God," explained the alien. These aliens are hoping to set up an embassy to Earth, although they will not be presenting their credentials to the Holy See.

The marchers' route took them from the Colosseum, an appropriate enough beginning, to Piazza Venezia where Mussolini used to harangue his troops. Here they formed a logjam, blocking traffic as they attempted to continue their march to its intended destination -- St. Peter's Square. The Romans, having seen many an invading barbarian horde over the centuries, merely shrugged and took another path to continue their activities.

The protesters against organized religion had their own organizational problems. From block to block, the group diminished in numbers and by the time they crossed the bridge to the Vatican, they were but a few stragglers. Perhaps they had been distracted by the holiday market in Piazza Navona or the pubs in Campo de' Fiori.

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Crèches of Catechesis

Sunday in St. Peter's Square couldn't have been a greater contrast to the feisty little band of atheists. From early morning, busloads of pilgrims came from all over Italy bringing men, women and children to the Vatican. The children came bearing "Bambinelli," the figures of Baby Jesus that adorn the Nativity scenes. Big or small, ceramic or plastic, finely crafted or crudely wrought, these figurines were held aloft as the Holy Father appeared for the recitation of the Angelus.

On the Third Sunday of Advent the Pope blesses the "Bambinelli" that will be placed in the crèches on Christmas Eve. During the Angelus, John Paul II spoke of the importance of the Nativity scene, stressing that it was "an element of our art and culture" but adding that the crèche is, above all, "a sign of our faith in God."

This emphasis on the importance of Nativity scenes appeared to Italians as a response to several teachers, especially in the region of Veneto, who have been campaigning to remove Nativity scenes from schools, claiming that it offends people of other faiths.

The Pope's statement was echoed by several Italian bishops. "To respect another's [religious] identity," remarked Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, "one shouldn't eradicate one's own."

Indeed the Nativity scene has been part of Italy's culture for almost 800 years now. According to tradition, St. Francis created the first representation of the birth of Christ in the little town of Greccio in 1223.

Francis' intent was probably to assist the faithful in understanding the greatness of God's love through the humility of his birth. The crèche also brought the 1,200-year-old story to vivid life in the minds of the faithful as they, like the shepherds represented in the scene, became witnesses to the Incarnation.

This event was immortalized in fresco by Giotto 70 years later in the Upper Basilica of Assisi.

Since then, the crèche has been an essential part of Christmas celebrations in Italy. The elaborate Nativities produced in Naples are well known and it is common for city dwellers, Christian or not, to visit church after church admiring the many different representations of the birth of Jesus.

It is also an opportunity for catechesis. Children enamored of the figures of animals and people or the clever arrangements of running water and blinking lights delight in hearing about Mary, Baby Jesus, Joseph and the angels that summoned the shepherds.

Unfortunately, these catechetical opportunities are often wasted. A recent survey published in an Italian newspaper reported that only 30% of Italian children recognize the figures in the Nativity scene.

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Christmas Etchings

The Pontifical Commission for Fine Arts has apparently decided to combat ignorance about Nativity scenes by promoting an exhibition called "Venite Adoremus," a collection of 120 etchings showing scenes surrounding the birth of Christ.

While all the etchings are black and white, the show greets visitors with two bright splashes of color, the first being an "Annunciation" from Venice consisting of two statuettes in cheery, fluttering robes. The other work is an 18th-century Neapolitan crèche complete with little picnic baskets and other minutiae that render these scenes so endearing.

Thus heartened, the visitor enters into a more contemplative mood with the first prints. By German artists such as Schongauer, Dürer and Altdorfer, these scenes with heavy outlines solemnly focus the viewer's attention on the Incarnation.

The exhibit is divided up into four sections: the Nativity, the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Three Magi and the Flight to Egypt. A minimum of 20 images per section offers plenty of opportunity for reflection on the meaning of each scene.

The largest number of etchings represents the Adoration of the Shepherds. Numbering 41 in all, this section helps one to meditate on the manner in which Christ chose to reveal himself. In the humblest of settings, to the lowest sector of society, these images underline the universality of Jesus' mission of salvation. From Rembrandt's dark ground with a lantern dramatically illuminating the Christ Child, to Domenichino's luminous and lively version, the mystery of "seeing God" is explored over and over.

An interested observer should notice where Baby Jesus is placed in the scene. Is he up high in the image, just above eye level forcing our gaze upward? Or is he placed in the epicenter of the adoring figures surrounding him? Or is he simply lying on the ground? On an altarpiece, the Baby Jesus would appear to be poised above the altar as a reminder of his sacrifice.

Also fascinating are the images of the Adoration of the Magi. The three kings evolve from three identical figures in early Christian art into distinct characters during the Renaissance. The first king is elderly and clearly of Western European origin. The second appears middle-aged and has Asian somatic traits while the third is youthful and African. As the discovery of new worlds took place in the 16th century, so the magi scenes developed to reflect this "globalization." A visual reminder that Christmas indeed brings joy to the world.

Cleverly housed in the immense "Cancelleria" building between the Piazza Navona and Campo de' Fiori, the exhibit is bound to draw passers-by for a moment's meditation on the deeper meaning of Christmas.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Rome Campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.