December 25, 2013
St. Francis Makes Bethlehem Real
by Friar Jeremy Harrington, O.F.M.
A joyful Christmas to you! Thanks for spending a minute with me on this great day. I hope that you feel the warmth of Jesus’ love in your heart and are surrounded with loving family and friends.
I know that the Jesus being born with no fanfare in a cave to a young mother seems almost too wonderful to be true—but it is. St. Francis of Assisi was passionate about making the birth of Jesus real to us.
As a teenager, Francis had an experience of the pomp and excitement that surrounded a royal child. In 1194, the pregnant Empress Constance was on her way to Sicily to join her husband, Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor. She was forced to stop in the little village of Jesi, near Assisi, to give birth to a son. Later, she and her whole entourage of knights and ladies brought her son, Frederick, to the Cathedral of San Rufino in Assisi for Baptism. Francis’ home was near the cathedral. He probably couldn’t have missed the excitement and crowds that surrounded the royal baby, who later became the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.
We remember how the world awaited the birth of William and Kate’s baby. The Christening of Prince George was a media event followed by people worldwide.
A Christmas Story
Francis returned from the Holy Land after prayerful meditations on the life of Jesus. As Christmas approached in 1223, he was thinking about Jesus being born in a cave in Bethlehem. The stark contrast between the royal event he witnessed as a teenager in Assisi and the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem’s cave may well have struck him.
In 1223, he told his friend Giovanni Velita, the mayor of Greccio, that he wanted to experience how it really was for Jesus in Bethlehem. He asked Velita to prepare a manger in a cave on the side of the mountain and to bring an ox and ass. The manger was a shallow V-shaped indentation in a brownish gray stone. An image of the baby Jesus was laid in it on hay. Francis wanted to see the hard manger on which Jesus lay with ox and ass breathing on him, and to feel the cold that made Mary and Joseph shiver.
The portrayal of the poor Jesus and his poor mother moved Francis deeply. The friars and townspeople came with candles and torches. Francis read the Gospel during the Mass. The idea of reenacting the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem spread quickly throughout Europe and then the world.
The True Meaning
I like the story of Greccio and the contrast of what Jesus had compared to other royal babies such as Frederick and George. It drives home the humility of God. We have beautified the crib. That is not how Francis imagined it.
Are there stories or customs that help you appreciate the meaning of Christmas? I would love to hear them. What are your favorite meditations on the birth of Jesus? What warms your heart?
Again, I wish you great joy! Merry Christmas!
Readers respond to Friar Jim Van Vurst's December E-spiration, Catechism Quiz: Amazing Numbers
Dear Joy and Margaret: Isn’t it mind-boggling? Just go back 20 generations and there are over 1,000,000 individuals involved in your being alive at this very moment. If there is a change in any of their lives, you would not be in existence. Friar Jim
Dear Patrick and James: It helps me realize just how complicated life really is and how foolish it is for anyone to say, “I wish I was in charge of the world. I’d make everything right.” Instead, we should turn to God with this prayer: “Thank you, God, for taking care of us.” Friar Jim
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