‘A Different Nativity Scene’ in Athens’ Saint Dionysius Cathedral

Pope Francis Recently Went to This Greek-Catholic Church

A Different Nativity Scene in Athens
© Nefeli Roussou

We share this article “A Different Nativity Scene” in Athens’ Saint Dionysius Cathedral with the testimony of Ivette Valle Konstantopoulou, architect responsible for the design of the Nativity Scene in the Catholic Cathedral of the Greek capital, where, in his recent Apostolic Journey to the Hellenic country, Pope Francis met with bishops, priests, men and women Religious, seminarians and catechists.

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© Ivette V. Konstantopoulou

I had the opportunity to collaborate with Father Giorgos Dagas, when he was parish priest of Saint Andrew’s Catholic Church in Patras. We made a manger that was a model of 8×2 meters dimensions with characteristic buildings of the city made to scale. The main idea was to welcome the Christmas message in our heart, today’s people in our place. As Patras is a port city, in the first edition of the Nativity Scene, the Holy Family arrived in this city on a boat and the inhabitants came to receive them.

A Different Nativity Scene in Athens
Alex Osana, Ivette Valle, Jesusa Stanislao y Michail Provelengios © Ivette V. Konstantopoulou

Then the concept of the bridge of time was introduced through which the Apostles brought the message of Christianity to these lands, with special reference to Saint Andrew, the city’s Patron, who arrived in the city on that boat. Included in the third year was the traditional Nativity Scene to highlight it and to point out that the Christmas message came from there until it reached our days in the present-day city where the Holy Family was “mixed” in our midst. During the three years (2017-2019), that we kept this artistic installation, the project evolved receiving good reviews. Both the local community, as well as many others, visited it (To see images and written articles in this regard, consult digital editions of the “Πατρινοί Ορίζοντες” newspaper, which is found in the Archives section (Αρχεία) of the digital page of the parish catheclpatra.gr, Tomes (τεύχος) 141, 147, 153.

In 2020 Father Jorge became the parish priest of Saint Dionysius’ Cathedral in Athens and many things changed. Because of the pandemic, we were only able to see the Christmas Mass of 2020 through the YouTube channels of our parishes. Some candles, placed in places of the faithful, consoled us.

Fr. Giorgos and Pope Francis © Vatican Media

One day, Father Giorgos called me to ask me about the scale of the buildings of Patras’ Nativity Scene, because he wanted to do an equivalent one for Athens for Christmas of 2021. As the 2020 Christmas season was approaching, I made a postcard for him as in previous years, with an idea related to a manger he liked very much. Then he asked me to suggest some buildings for the Nativity Scene and, as I had lived in Athens for years, and had also taken part in architecture and urban competition for the improvement of the city, I embraced the idea given that the buildings I suggested were in the area of competition in the city center. I prepared my suggestion as a sketch made by hand and a Powerpoint presentation.

He had been in contact with an architecture office and architect Michail Provelengios of that office also accepted my proposal. We held some meetings to discuss details of the project. His office was in charge of the design and production of the models and, with a spirit of good cooperation, this artistic installation was developed, which a group of volunteers committed itself to implement.

© Alexandros Osana

At the beginning of the project, we kept the traditional manger of previous years, making only one change in the mountains of the scenery, which were replaced by a real image of Bethlehem’s mountains, which then evolved into the imposing Lycabettus hill in the center of Athens. The panels with the images of these mountains were intentionally dimensioned in such a way that, in addition to fitting harmoniously in the ensemble, the stations of the Via Crucis can be seen in the upper part, as a reminder of the reason that Jesus wanted to born among us.

The project’s axis is Panepistimiou street, where the location of the traditional manger corresponds to the site of the Omonia Square, of Unity, a lovely “coincidence,” full of symbolism. Then we found some historic buildings in the street: the University, the Academy, the Catholic Cathedral of Saint Dionysius. It ends at the turn of the street towards the Syntagma Central Square, which is in front of the Parliament building. Created in this way is the sensation that the street “embraces” the elements that are in the lower level, wherein the “bridge of time”  the Apostles bring the message of the Incarnation of the Word until arriving at the Areios Pagos hill near the Acropolis. On the hill is Saint Paul preaching about the one God and Saint Dionysius who listens to him and becomes the first convert. The Orthodox Metropolis is in the same axis as the Catholic Church and the imaginary lines between Bethlehem and Syntagma Square and the two churches form the sign of the Cross. The Acropolis dominates from the rock as a characteristic historic symbol both of the city as well as of the country.

A Different Nativity Scene in Athens
© Ivette V. Konstantopoulou

These images become a strong visual aid for any pilgrim visiting the Cathedral and who, with a recollected spirit, pauses to contemplate these elements which, as a whole, constitute a modern Nativity Scene. What we want to highlight is that Christmas isn’t an event that we remember with nostalgia and remains in the past.

The large-scale figures of the Holy Family, illuminated in warm colors and the light of the Bethlehem star in the portal, invite us to go to adore the Child and then, on the other end, in the Square where the Christmas tree is a wooden Holy Family, of a larger scale than the ordinary figures, made by craftsmen of Bethlehem, which makes us feel His presence in our midst. We have been careful to have the figures oriented in the direction of the place where the message of the Good News is proclaimed, trying to give some character to the figures, now that we met a Catholic priest (Father Giorgos) at the entrance of the Cathedral, an Orthodox priest in the respective Orthodox Cathedral, a band, and even a chestnuts vendor.

© Nefeli Roussou

The buildings, which represent our work activities, have their doors open as a sign of welcome to the Christmas message. A poster with the images of the Bethlehem buildings of Patras is my signature in this project. As for the rest, each visitor will find what Jesus has to say to him in his heart. A strong message is being transmitted from Athens in a blessed year when it was visited by Pope Francis (December 4-6, 2021).

Here is the transcription of the flyer that visitors can take with them with the description of the project.

The Manger in the Cathedral of Saint Dionysius

© Alex Osana

Our manger this year represents the spread of the Christian message in time. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, but the Apostles and His followers take the message of His Incarnation to all the ends of the earth. The bridge of time begins from the Holy Land, which symbolizes the passing of 2,000 years, and arrives at the contemporary city of Athens! The bridge is made of materials proper to the time of Jesus and also of subsequent periods, until it arrives, finally, at the Areios Pagos hill, at the foot of the Acropolis, where the Apostle Paul met with Dionysisu the Areopagite.

In the representation of the modern city, the Athenians also receive the great Apostle, letting the Christmas message of the Incarnation flood their heart.

In truth, what is the meaning of our celebrating Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, which happened two thousand years ago, if we, the people of our time, don’t let the Christmas message enter our hearts? As you will remember, Joseph desperately tried to find a room in an Inn, as his wife, Mary, was about to give birth at any moment. There was nowhere for Jesus to be born because all the places were full. That night in Bethlehem, only the manger said ‘yes,’ whereas all other places said ‘no.’ And Christ, who is humble, did not disdain the manger but entered it to be born.

© Alex Osana

Jesus addresses the same question to us today. “Do you have some room for me in your heart so that I can enter? We often want to say ‘yes,’ but life’s obligations  (professional, family, and others) have made us run so that, unfortunately, we have forgotten to leave some room in our heart, to give a bit of the time of our life to Jesus. So, when He comes and knocks on the door, He finds us occupied and we send Him away, just as happened that night.

Hence, this year’s manger shows the turn of modern man against this tendency. Perhaps you can recognize yourself in the figures of the scene. Perhaps it’s time that we let Jesus enter our heart, to take that step that we have wanted to take for a long time but always postponed. The time has come!

Translation by Virginia M. Forrester