VATICAN — The sand nativity

– José Maria C.S. André

This year, the crib of St. Peter’s Square is a 16 m long, 5 m high and 6 m deep sand sculpture. It took 20 large trucks to transport 700 tons of sand from Jesolo in northern Italy to St Peter’s Square. Ten workers carried out the operation of compacting the sand to make it more consistent, and then mounted the roof that protects the whole scenery from the elements. Over the next two weeks, four international sculptors with experience in this type of material joined forces to sculpt the figures: Richard Varano (from the United States), Ilya Filimontsev (from Russia), Susanne Ruseler (from the Netherlands) and Rodovan Ziuny (from the Czech Republic). Richard Varano has won the world title of sand sculpture eleven times and the others are also top sculptors in this specific field.

The relief is divided into three large sections: the Holy Family in the center, the adoration of the shepherds on the left and the Magi kings on the right. In addition, several Angels populate the scenery. All the figures converge to the Child Jesus, in great prominence.

The municipality of Jesolo organizes sand nativities for many years, but this time the challenge was greater. The four sculptors chosen by the municipality did not just want to surprise tourists, they wanted to help the pilgrims pray. And, of all opinions, those four and the whole team of Jesolo were anxious to know the Pope’s opinion. Therefore, the culminating moment of the two weeks of work was on December 7, when Francis went down to St Peter’s Square to see the crib and the Christmas tree next to it. Enthused by the splendor and beauty of the whole set, the Pope delivered a profound meditation about Christmas, broadcast by television in several countries.

The tree and the crib are “two signs that never lose their fascination power and help us to contemplate the mystery of God made man to be close to each one of us,” said Francis. “This fir tree, with a height of more than 20 meters, denotes God who, with the birth of his Son Jesus, humbles Himself to men in order to raise them from the mists of selfishness and sin. The Son of God assumes the human condition in order to attract her to Himself and make her partake His divine and incorruptible nature.”

The sand of that crib, “a poor material, symbolizes the simplicity, the smallness with which God showed Himself in the birth of Jesus, in the precarious lodging of Bethlehem. We might think that this smallness is in contradiction with the divinity, indeed some even considered that [Christ’s humanity] was a wrap, a covering. On the contrary. Smallness is freedom. Whoever is small, in the evangelical sense, not only walks lightly, but free from all obsession of showing up and all pretense of success; like children who express themselves freely and live spontaneously. We are all called to be free before God, to have the freedom of a child before his Father. The Child Jesus, Son of God and our Savior, here in the crib, is holy in poverty, in smallness, in simplicity, in humility.”

When the Pope concluded his reflections on Christmas and greeted the sculptors, they felt like floating on a cloud. They could not imagine a more intense moment. The two previous weeks they worked strenuously on that enormous sculpture, intended and cast with such a strong purpose. At the end, listen the Pope himself interpret their work!… For the sculptors and for the whole team, this year the Christmas gift arrived earlier.