In my mind, January is one of the best times to visit Rome. The weather is typically pleasant – not too cold, rarely snow. The crowds are light, especially after Epiphany. And, perhaps best of all, the famous Roman presepi, or Nativity scenes, are on display in churches throughout the city until the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2. And because there are so many churches in Rome in a very compact area, it is easy to do a walking Presepio Tour through the city. And that’s just what I have been doing this week. Averaging about 11 miles a day of walking, over four days I have visited about 50 churches in Rome, of which 30 or so had a presepio on display. I will have more pictures to post when I return home, but below is an example of a Roman presepio, from the Church of Sant’Eustachio.
As you can see, Roman presepi are quite different from what we have in most of our churches and homes in the United States. They are almost always much more extensive than just the biblical characters, often including hundreds of figures of people and animals. They are often set in a particular environment that is not necessarily supposed to represent the biblical Bethlehem – the one pictured above is set in a Roman street, and many are set among ancient Roman ruins. They almost always include visual effects, such as running water, motorized characters, twinkling stars, or changing skies. One of my favorites is at the Church of Santa Prassede, where the backdrop and lighting change to show a complete cycle of daylight, sunset, nighttime appearance of the angels, and sunrise over the course of several minutes. That same presepio has a fisherman sitting on a bridge raising and lowering his fishing line and a shepherd combing a sheep – all mechanical action. Another presepio, at Sant’Ignazio, has hundreds – and I literally mean hundreds – of sheep scattered throughout the scene. It’s not unusual to see shepherds herding large groups of sheep, not just the two or three we often have in our Nativity scenes in the States.
But maybe the most striking element of Roman presepi is the large number of characters, often just going about their daily business oblivious to the fact of the birth of Jesus happening right among them. You may see a butcher chopping meat in his shop, or a table of men playing cards in a bar, or women carrying groceries through the streets, or children playing in a park. I think the point is clear – for people of all times, including many today, we are so consumed in our own lives and routines that we don’t notice the presence of God among us. And yet God enters into the ordinariness of our daily lives and wants to meet us wherever we are and whatever we are doing. That is the great gift of the incarnation.
So we look to find ourselves in these presepi, and sometimes the scenes themselves have reminders that Jesus was born for all times and all peoples. Pope Francis appears in one, Swiss Guards in another, some have priests and nuns, almost all have children. We are there – and God is here.
And there are even some light-hearted scenes. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I saw in the presepio at Santi Apostoli a skillet of fake chestnuts roasting on a fake open fire. But then when you walk outside the church into the streets and piazzas of Rome in winter, you see vendors selling real chestnuts roasting on real open fires. And Christmas comes full circle.