UNESCO adopted the Convention for the Protection of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003. Its list goes from baskets and ceramics in traditional societies to the whistling language still used on the Canary Islands. The crèche has become an icon of both indestructible and fragile human nature. For Christians, this is tied to a story.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis just signed an Apostolic Letter on the meaning of the crèche, and we welcome it. In some countries, the crèche has been criticised, with attempts to ban it from the public space, in the name of the separation of state and religion.
Of course, it all depends on the weight one places on a symbol. The creator of the crèche, Saint Francis (13th century), had no other goal than to awaken the piety of the faithful. That it has been made into sign of a distinct identity is a misuse of which all religions and all beliefs can be victims.
However, in an age of globalisation with exchanges of goods and ideas, the crèche could quite naturally fit into the list of what UNESCO defines as humanity’s "intangible cultural heritage", an extension of the concept of world heritage to cultural traditions, not only to natural sites and buildings. Thus, the Byzantine chant has just been added to the list of humanity’s intangible heritage, along with twenty other items, like mountaineering.
The notion of intangible cultural heritage is recent. It appeared in the 1990s, after recommendations were made about the need to protect traditional cultures, and as a counterpoint to the notion of World Heritage centred essentially on the material aspects of culture. In 1997, the notion was extended to “the oral heritage of humanity,” whose masterpieces had to be “protected”, especially when they were threatened.
In 2003, an agreement to protect the intangible cultural heritage was signed. It reads: “The ‘intangible cultural heritage’ means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage [. . .] is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.”
The convention defines the domains in which the intangible heritage can manifest itself: oral traditions and expressions, including language; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and, finally, the know-how linked to traditional crafts. The list of intangible heritage is, as one can imagine, long. It ranges from basketry and pottery in traditional societies to the whistled language still used in the Canary Islands and the coaxing ritual of female camels in Mongolia.
Given these definitions, it seems obvious that the crèche should also be considered as part of the intangible heritage. Notwithstanding the Christian faith, the birth of a child on whom rests a “spirit of counsel and strength", and the dogma of the Incarnation, the crèche has become an icon of a human nature that is both indestructible and fragile. It is indestructible by the intrinsic capacities of regeneration with which it is endowed; it is fragile in that it represents humanity at its very first moments, a humanity barely out of the nursery, when each human being represents the potential of the whole human species, in what it has that is unique and sacred.
For Christians, this humanness is tied to a story. Quoting the passage from the Book of Genesis saying “Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness,” the Fathers of the Church spoke of the creation of man as occurring after "a consultation" or even "a deliberation” within the Trinity. This is also, above all some would say, the reality of which the crèche can be the icon.
This icon, although appearing in excessive numbers, sometimes adapted with a lot of bad taste, or shamefully exploited for commercial purposes, continues to dazzle us when surrounded by true beauty, awakening in us an inexhaustible wonder and a nostalgia for unalterable innocence offered to everyone every day, and infinitely renewable.