Plastic figures of Joseph and Mary, pregnant and riding a donkey, seem to make their way through a busy Bethlehem marketplace of coppersmiths, carpet sellers and other vendors.
Another five feet away are the farmlands of Bethlehem. There, along with dozens of animals, a spinning windmill and fountain of running water, is the stable that will soon be the place of Christ’s birth.
Nativity scenes may be common in many homes around Christmas. But rarely are they as expansive and detailed as this one at the Marian Centre, known chiefly for its clothing drive, and its soup kitchen which provides for as many as 150 people in Edmonton’s inner-city.
This Christmas, the Marian Centre’s Christmas display has been a source of prayer and joy.
“I always find it so inspiring. If you have the heart of a child, you will love it,” said Hugo Isaza, director of Marian Centre, who created the Nativity scene and surrounding village over four years.
“It shows the Incarnation in a real world with real people, and it shows that Jesus was born for everyone. Not just the righteous, but the Roman soldiers, the shepherds, farmers, the people in the market place, the beggars — everyone is on display here.”
The Nativity scene spans nearly nine feet and features hundreds of figures, model buildings, stone walls and plants. Roman soldiers stand outside the town gates that open into its busy marketplace. Then there’s the village centre where beggars, gardens and the busy town’s inn are found.
Most of the items were handcrafted by Marian Centre staff and volunteers, except the figures which are ordered in or purchased at local toy shops. As Christmas Eve approaches, the figures of Joseph and Mary are moved closer and closer to the manger. On Christmas Day the figure of baby Jesus will be placed in the manger.
For Miriam Stulberg, the elaborate display has enlivened the Christmas spirit for the staff.
“It’s like you can’t stop looking at it,” said Stulberg, who has worked at the Marian Centre since the 1970s. “You’re always discovering something new. And it’s wonderful to show it to our friends and volunteers and see their excitement.”
“The best vantage point to look at the village is from a child’s height. And it’s fitting, because you become like a child when you watch it.”
The first time Doreen Anne Chapman saw the village, she was overwhelmed.
“It’s fascinating and just beautiful,” said Chapman, a volunteer at the Marian Centre. “Whenever I come in, I’ll look to find Mary and Joseph and see how far along they are on their journey.”
Isaza brought this vast and elaborate Bethlehem village to Edmonton last year when he took on the position of director. He had previously worked on the display for three years when he was employed with the Marian Centre in Regina.
It’s a tradition goes back to his childhood in Colombia, where building a model Bethlehem village is a common Christmas activity.
“You see this Bethlehem village built in every household, office, shopping mall,” he said. “In Colombia not even Christmas trees are as traditional as this. Our family would also gather around the village, pray a nine-day novena and sing together. It’s like we join and follow with Mary and Joseph on their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.”
And Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith reiterated this call for families to create their own nativity scenes and meditate and pray before them in his annual Christmas message.
“It’s very calming and enticing. I just sit here and contemplate and meditate,” said Isaza. “When I was a child they would get you to identify with one character in the village, and you could slowly move him towards the stable when Christ is born. It’s a very playful way to meditate and pray for the coming of Jesus.”
It’s also been a source of community and friendship for the staff and volunteers of Marian Centre. Volunteers painted its blue skyline backdrop. Stulberg crafted roof tiles, made miniature carpets for the market and even carved letters for the scribe who sits near the centre of town.
“It gets everyone in the Marian House together as a family, and that’s an important factor,” said Isaza. “It’s a chance for us to create beauty.”
-With files from Catholic News Service