Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian
The hand-crafted, life-size crèche on the grounds of St. Joan of Arc Parish, Yorktown, is so striking that it beckons people driving by to pull into the church parking lot to admire it visually and to experience it spiritually.
For the last decade, from the start of Advent through Epiphany, it has stood against the side of the church that fronts U.S. 17.
Though blind since childhood, Father Mike Joly, pastor of St. Joan of Arc, came up with the overall concept of the crèche for which he stipulated that the figures would be life-size silhouettes. Parishioners Marcy Avery, the designer, and Hank Rose, the head craftsman, brought it to fruition. The purpose of backlighting the dark figures, according to the priest, is to provide a stark contrast to remind people that “it’s in the darkness that light makes Christ very, very visible.”
“It creates quite an impression at night,” Father Joly said. “Having the light illuminate the crèche is a great reminder that the Lord is present in any situation. We wanted the Good News of Christ to be visible and audible in a day and age which is more and more overwhelmed by a merely earthly and secular agenda.”
The crèche measures 22 feet long, seven feet deep and eight feet tall. Timers trigger lights to illuminate the scene from dusk to morning and prompt sacred music to play.
The crèche is blessed each year on the first Sunday of Advent in a service where the Gospel narrative of the Nativity is proclaimed and worshippers sing Christmas carols and hold candles as a reminder that “the birth of Christ has taken place in each one of us,” the priest said.
Father Joly and Rose said the silhouettes make the Nativity scene more vivid, prayerful and open to interpretation.
Avery, who has an art degree and taught art for 33 years primarily in York County schools, said she was “honored, thrilled and humbled” when Father Joly asked her to design the crèche because it allowed her to begin fulfilling a calling she had received from God several years before when she was painting a wraparound mural in her daughter’s bedroom.
“I was up on a ladder painting the ceiling and all of the sudden I heard in my heart these words: ‘Marcy, do your art for me.’ Immediately I felt like a lightning bolt had hit my heart. Immediately what followed was an intense desire to use my art talent that God has given me to give it back to him,” she said.
Avery does not take credit for the beauty of the crèche. Rather, as with all of her religious projects, she said she received divine inspiration in designing it as she prayed throughout the process. She said she holds the pencil, but God guides it.
“When I am trying to do it alone, it is a struggle, but when I let go and let God take over, then creating the art becomes a joy,” Avery said. “I have a good time working on it because I can feel God’s hand on my shoulder giving me ideas.”
In creating the project, she studied Renaissance paintings of the Nativity and drew inspiration from crèches, primarily her own. After finalizing the design, she posed people in front of the plywood that would be used for the scene and traced them. She drew slits in the figures to be cut out so that when the light shines through them, they appear three dimensional and show more detail. A stable with a straw roof and floor shelters the Holy Family.
“It’s peaceful because of its simplicity,” said Cathy Fowler, a parishioner. “I hope people driving by remember that the birth of our Lord is what is important, not all the commercialism. It puts Christ back in Christmas.”
After determining the logistics of the piece, Rose, assisted by parishioners Dan Burton and Chuck Avery, built it.
“To me, it was a labor of love,” Rose said.
For the past several years, Boy Scout Troop 306 has erected the scene each Advent.
“One of the key pillars of the Scouting program is community service,” said Stephen Living, troop committee chair. “In addition to serving the charter organization (St. Joan of Arc), we are affecting the broader community as thousands of folks drive past and will see this every day.”
Father Joly and Avery said people driving by the church sometimes pull into the parking lot to admire the Nativity scene and have a peaceful, sometimes prayerful, moment. Calling the area around the crèche a refuge, Avery said at least once during Advent or Christmas, she too spends time in front of the Nativity scene because she finds it peaceful and calming.
“I feel how tenderly God loves me, and I hope other people feel that, too,” she said. “I want them to feel that pull, that tug from God for them to become close to him.”
Confirmation that the scene is impacting people spiritually came the year it was constructed when a woman, not knowing Avery was the artist, approached her after Mass and told her that she had not been to church in years but when she saw the Nativity scene, she thought any church with such a beautiful crèche must be a good place to worship.
Parishioner Jack Christie said the uniqueness of the crèche “draws attention to it.” Agreeing, his wife Susan described the Nativity scene as “reverent and tasteful.”
Father Joly credited the crèche for spreading the Good News.
“The four weeks of Advent emphasize a longing and a hope that really does burn in every single human being’s heart. For us Christians, Advent points to the fulfillment of that longing in Christ,” he said. “Thousands of people pass by on 17 every evening. For it to catch their eye or their ear is perhaps exactly what all passersby truly need at that moment.”