Christmas was 15 days away. Francis was staying
at a hermitage at Fonte Columbo. He had just come from Romethe
last time, for he would die in three yearswhere the pope had
approved his Rule. The brief future would be filled with pain, even
the pain of the wounds of Christ.
How to celebrate Christmas?
He remembered his visit to the Holy Land, to Bethlehem.
Why not? A kind of replica
of the manger there. There was a cave, in Greccio...
He had a good friend,
Giovanni (John) Vellita, whom he had met on one of his preaching
tours. John was a military man, lord of Greccio, just two miles
away. John had fallen under the spell of Francis, had renounced
all worldly honors and was trying to live a life imitating that
of Francis as well as he could.
Francis, with the assurance
of friendship, sent word: If you want to celebrate the Feast
of the Lord at Greccio, hurry and diligently prepare what I tell
you. For I wish to recall to memory the little child who was born
in Bethlehem. I want to set before our bodily eyes the hardships
of his infant needs, how he lay in the manger, how with an ox and
ass standing by he lay upon the hay.
John began immediately.
People prepared torches and candles to light up the night. The manger
was prepared in the cave, and the ox and ass brought in. When Francis
came to the friars hermitage, he was delighted.
The great evening arrived.
People began to come in procession, carrying their torches and candles.
The woods rang with their song. They were rediscovering the joy
Today, in Greccio, one
can still see the stoneperhaps three feet high and two feet
wideon which the hay was placed. It has a brownish gray top
and bottom, with a band of gray in the center. The top has a rough,
shallow, V-shaped indentation. Here the carved image of the baby
was laid. There were no figures of Joseph and Mary, just the two
As the villagers and friars
crowded around, a priest began the Mass. Francis gave the sermon.
His biographer, Thomas of Celano, Francis contemporary, writes:
The saint of God stood before the manger, uttering sighs,
overcome with love and filled with a wonderful happiness....He sang
the Gospel in a sonorous voice, a clear and sonorous voice, inviting
all to the highest rewards. Then he preached to the people standing
about and spoke charming words concerning the birth of the poor
King, and the little town of Bethlehem....When he spoke the name
Child of Bethlehem or Jesus, his tongue
licked his lips, relishing and savoring with pleased palate the
sweetness of the words.
The accounts do not say
whether the child was a living baby or a carved figure. It was probably
the latter, for it is recorded that at least one of the observers
saw the infant come alive.
The simple celebration
was not the first time the birth of Jesus was celebrated in a dramatic
way, as we shall see. But Francis brought to the scene a vision
that saw more than the pleasant tableau we now have.
As quoted above, he wanted
to show the hardships Jesus suffered already as an infant. In the
daring phrase of St. Paul, he saw the emptying of the glory of the
Son of God, born of a gentle mother but still thrown upon a stony
and resisting world.
Francis wanted to realize
and help people realize exactly what God had done for his people,
and how poor he chose to be for our sakes. Francis himself
had chosen the bitter poverty of being on the margin of society,
with no resources or security. He saw the Son of God placing himself,
as it were, on the margin of divinity.
He saw a truly human Jesus,
not a divine being hiding behind a deceptive physical facade. The
humility of the Incarnation and of the Cross was his constant preoccupation.
He wanted to think of nothing elseBethlehem and Calvary.
His life centered, then,
around poverty and humility, sister virtues. He told his friars
not to be ashamed to beg, since God himself became poor for
our sakes....Poverty is the heritage which our Lord Jesus Christ
has acquired for us.
Thomas of Celano says,
He would often meditate on the desolation of Christ and his
holy mother with tears, and he maintained that poverty was the
queen of the virtues, as she had become so radiantly manifest
in the King and his mother.
Francis love and
compassion for the suffering and Passion of Christ were so deep
that he no longer cared about his own pain. In the year after this
celebration, he would be so identified with the suffering Christ
that the five wounds appeared in his body.
Francis time, as early as the fifth century, the Basilica
of St. Mary Major in Rome had a small oratory built like the cave
of Bethlehem. The basilicas second title was St. Mary
at the Crib. The popes first Mass of Christmas was
Christmas plays, imitating
those of Easter, probably grew up in the 11th century. And in
the century before Francis lived, ecclesiastics dressed up as
the midwives, Magi, shepherds and other persons of the Christmas
story, as well as live animals, are already recorded in descriptions
of the liturgical drama, the Spectacula Theatricalia, as
participants in Christmas celebration.
But it was Francis who
thrilled the Catholic world with his simple and fervent celebration.
After his death in 1226, the custom of having the crib at Christmas
spread widely through Europe.
The New Catholic
Encyclopedia (Volume IV, page 448) says: By the dawn
of the baroque era, the crib setting had become an intricate scenic
landscape, and numerous secular figures were now added to those
of the Holy Family, shepherds and Magi. Crib-making thus developed
into an important folk art, especially in Portugal, in the Tyrol,
and most of all in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, where it was
actively patronized by Charles III de Bourbon (d. 1788).
The home crib
became popular in Catholic Europe after 1600, owing, it is said,
to the efforts of the Capuchins. Except for the crib (the putz)
of the pietist Moravians, manger-building was not originally adopted
by Protestants. Pre-Reformation England had had its own crib custom,
that of baking the Christmas mince pie in an oblong manger shape
to cradle an image of the Child. The British Puritans, therefore,
in outlawing Christmas, declared particular war on mince pie as
idolatrie in crust.
Francis would smile
at our nice varnished cribs, though he would bless any home that
has one. Probably he would prefer those set up outdoors with live
animals. And if he were to stand by one and preach today, he might
say something like this:
Look deeper than
this pleasant scene. See your God become your food for eternity
in a feeding place for animals. See the simple bands wound around
the helpless baby, not the embroidered dress. See a man and woman
wearing the clothes of the poor. See and smell the animals. Feel
the cold and dirt of the cave, lighted only by a little fire.
And adore your God, who took a human heart that could know the
greatest love and the sharpest pain, arms that could embrace the
sinners, the neurotics, the lepers, and hands that could touch
cheeks running with tears, and be pierced with nails. Adore your
poor and humble God.
This article originally appeared in the December 1989 issue of
St. Anthony Messenger. The late Father Leonard Foley, a Franciscan
priest, was a prolific writer whose books include Saint
of the Day: Lives and Lessons for Saints and Feasts of the New Missal
in Jesus: A Popular Overview of the Catholic Faith - Fifth Revised
, published by St. Anthony Messenger Press.