By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — When St. Francis of Assisi staged the first Nativity scene 800 years ago, he did so to remind people of the powerful, awe-inspiring truth that God became human in Jesus, Pope Francis said.

Nativity scenes are not simply works of art or folk art, the pope told hundreds of people involved in staging a live Nativity scene at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome Dec. 16.

Dressed as angels, shepherds, the Holy Family and the townspeople of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, the amateur actors met Pope Francis in the Vatican audience hall just a few hours before their performance began.

When St. Francis staged a similar living Nativity in 1223, the pope said, he wanted “to represent in life the birth of Jesus to inspire in friars and in the people emotion and tenderness toward the mystery of God born of Mary in a stable and laid in a manger.”

The live setting, he said, was designed “to give substance to the representation — not a painting, not statues, but people in flesh and blood, in order to highlight the reality of the Incarnation.”

As St. Francis knew, “the purpose of the living Nativity scene is to reawaken wonder in the heart before the mystery of God who became a child.”

Pope Francis said that especially this year people should keep the people of Bethlehem in mind when they see a living Nativity scene or a crèche in a home or church. “For them, it promises to be a Christmas of suffering, of mourning, without pilgrims, without celebrations.”

“And naturally this extends to all the inhabitants of the land where Jesus was born, lived, died and rose again,” he said. “We know the situation caused by the war, the consequence of a conflict that has lasted for decades.”

Immediately after meeting the living Nativity characters, Pope Francis held an audience with musicians who would perform that evening in a Christmas concert at the Vatican to raise money for Catholic education.

The pope spoke of the importance of songs as ways to hand down “stories and prayers” and express what people are thinking and feeling in a way words alone cannot do.

“Just think of all those teenagers who sing the songs of their favorite artists by heart because those words and music combine to evoke in them a powerful blend of emotions and associations,” he said.

Down through the ages, he said, Christmas has inspired a treasure trove of songs among people of all ages and all cultures.

And performers, lending their voices and vocal interpretations to those melodies become part of the tradition, he said.

“There is something beautiful about this,” the pope said. “We have a message, ancient yet ever new, that of the birth of Jesus, the Savior, and different voices, from all over the world, that come together to make it heard.”

Christmas songs are never “uniform, homogenized,” he said. “Christmas carols are to be sung with that art that comes from the heart.”