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Your Nativity scene needs this sleeping shepherd, for all he symbolizes


Anna Raisa Favale | ALETEIA

Daniel Esparza - published on 12/21/23

As Benino peacefully sleeps, he enacts the Christmas miracle anew. His awakening heralds a fresh order, a new commencement for all.
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Christmas celebrations around the world are the result of the convergence of centuries-old traditions. Throughout time, diverse customs have interwoven in a rich mosaic of festive practices. The Neapolitan Nativity is certainly no exception.

Enter Benin (or Benino), a shepherd who is sleeping in a cave in the vicinity of the Nativity scene. Whereas this might be seen as yet another decorative motif, his presence has a deep religious significance.

To begin with, Benino’s origin is rooted in Scripture. When Luke says the angels brought the shepherds “good news of great joy” (Cf. Lk 2, 8-14), he also describes the shepherds as “keeping watch over their flock by night” and we know that, traditionally, shepherds take shifts to do this work. Chances are it was not Benino’s watch.

We know what the Bible says about being prepared and keeping watch. In more ways than one, Benino reminds us of the parable of the 10 virgins – “you don’t know the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.”

Typically depicted as a youthful shepherd, scarcely more than a boy, Benin in his slumber symbolizes not only the everyday bodily slumber, but also the immaturity of the spirit – as in “not being ready” at all.

However, Benino’s slumber at the pinnacle of salvation’s history, the birth of the Messiah, is also a subtle but poignant testament to the profound nature of the Incarnation. Everyday bodily acts are intimately related to this divine event. In multiple dimensions, Benino embodies the substantial burden of the world – encompassing its intrinsic, elemental activities. This flesh is the very essence adopted by God – a truth decisively affirmed by the Resurrection.

Now, Benino is also an unconscious anticipation of the most significant, irreversible event. Tradition claims that he was dreaming of the very Nativity he is part of. That is, not even the dormant (namely, the dead) are excluded from the Incarnation. “Sleep” thus becomes a preparation for the unfolding miracle of the Nativity and the ensuing spiritual rebirth, just like death is but a preparation of the Resurrection. This delicate game of correspondences is a complete summary of the economy of salvation: as Benino peacefully sleeps, he enacts the Christmas miracle anew. His awakening heralds a fresh order, a new commencement for all.

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