December 9, 2011

An Advent tradition

Hospital’s Live Nativity captures the joy and hardship of the first Christmas

For 17 years, Shirley Fox has planned the Live Nativity at Franciscan St. Francis Health—Beech Grove. This year, the annual event will be held on Dec. 12. Here, Fox poses by a glass Nativity scene of the Baby Jesus being admired by Franciscan friars. The artwork is outside the chapel of Franciscan St. Francis Health—Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

For 17 years, Shirley Fox has planned the Live Nativity at Franciscan St. Francis Health—Beech Grove. This year, the annual event will be held on Dec. 12. Here, Fox poses by a glass Nativity scene of the Baby Jesus being admired by Franciscan friars. The artwork is outside the chapel of Franciscan St. Francis Health—Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

As she plans the Live Nativity at the Catholic hospital where she works, Shirley Fox knows there are certain realities that she can count on happening every year.

First, there are always enough good people who believe in the power of the first Christmas story that Fox rarely has any difficulty filling the roles of the shepherd, the two angels and the Three Wise Men.

She also knows she has to be far more pro-active in finding the right mother and child for the roles of the Blessed Mother and the Baby Jesus—especially since she has learned that it helps to have an infant who is no older than six weeks by the time of the Live Nativity.

“Once you get beyond that six-week mark, they’re too big, and you have to worry about them cooing and making noises,” Fox says with a smile.

So that reality puts Fox in the sometimes strange position of keeping a lookout at the hospital for pregnant women who will give birth by early November.

“This year, I noticed there were a couple of women pregnant in the pharmacy,” she says. “There’s always someone willing to be Mary.”

Then there is the most consistent reality that she has learned in 17 years of planning the Live Nativity at Franciscan St. Francis Health—Beech Grove.

“I’ve learned not to stress about it,” says Fox, the mission coordinator within the hospital’s service excellence department. “After a few years, I came to the conclusion that this is not my doing. God is in control. So don’t stress. He has always seen it through. It always seems that when something is done to praise him, it comes through.”

Living a special tradition

When this year’s Live Nativity takes place at 1 p.m. on Dec. 12 at the hospital’s chapel, it will continue a special tradition that St. Francis of Assisi was involved in nearly 800 years ago and that the hospital has shared for about 50 years.

In 1223, three years before he died, St. Francis wanted to help people experience the joy and the hardship of the first Christmas. So in a cave outside the small town of Greccio, Italy, the scene of the Nativity was re-enacted with a manger and live animals on Christmas Eve.

“Times then were like they are now,” says Fox, who visited Greccio in 2005 during a trip to Italy. “People weren’t into the true meaning of Christmas. St. Francis started something with that Live Nativity, and we are continuing that tradition. Our mission statement says, ‘Continuing Christ’s ministry in our Franciscan tradition.’ The Live Nativity is a part of that. The point is to get people to focus on the true meaning of Christmas instead of focusing on all the materialism.”

The hospital also lives that spirit through its “Gift-a-Family” Christmas program that provides food, clothing and presents for people who are struggling, Fox says.

“It’s for families in need in the community, and sometimes it’s for our own staff,” she says. “There’s a nurse whose daughter passed away, and she now has her daughter’s three children to care for. Sometimes it’s a patient who has been in the hospital. We had a call from a chaplain about a man who will be having his last Christmas with his children.”

Sharing that detail about the father and his children moves Fox to tears. It’s a moment that shows the emotional connection that St. Francis employees have to the people who are chosen for the “Gift-a-Family” program. The hospital staff members who repeatedly volunteer for the Live Nativity have a similar connection to it.

“It’s something I enjoy doing every year,” says Victoria Osborne, an assistant in the radiology department who has been an angel and a reader in the 10 years that she has volunteered to be a part of the Live Nativity.

“It’s not only a tradition for us, it’s meaningful because we’re portraying the story of the birth of Christ,” Osborne continues. “My favorite part of the readings is when it mentions the baby being wrapped and lying in a manger. And it’s really awesome that we have a real baby in a manger. It all just goes back to the beginning of the story and how a Child was born to us.”

‘A peace that comes over me’

In 10 years of being one of the Wise Men, John Ross says the Live Nativity has always been “a really nice opportunity to remember what Christmas is all about.” His favorite memory occurred four years ago when his grandson, Oscar Ross, was an infant and served as the Baby Jesus.

“The whole family was there to observe,” said Ross, who retired as vice president of human resources in July after 37 years of working at the hospital. “It made me proud to have him involved.”

Fox has always followed two rituals on the morning of the Live Nativity. Before she leaves her home, she makes sure she has a comfortable white blanket for the baby. She also brings a baby doll with her.

“I’m a planner so I try to plan things out,” she says. “Every year, I bring in a baby doll, thinking the weather might be too bad or the baby is sick or the mother gets sick. But I’ve never had to use the doll. I think that’s neat in itself.”

She also talks briefly at the beginning of the Live Nativity, welcoming the 50 or so people who come to the chapel that day.

“Once I do the opening welcome, there’s just a peace that comes over me,” she says.

One other poignant feeling always fills Fox as she watches the Live Nativity at the hospital’s chapel.

“You have Jesus in the manger, and there is also Jesus on the Cross,” she says. “You have the beginning of the story, and you also know the ending. Anyone who is there for the Live Nativity goes home feeling the true meaning of Christmas and knowing the story of salvation—of why Jesus was sent.” †

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