Friar Jack Muses About the Special Link Between St. Francis, the Created World and The Feast of Christmas

Artists often depict St. Francis surrounded by animals, birds and flowers as if they all make up one happy family. This is not just a hyped-up picture of the saint created by sentimental nature-lovers or by Franciscan propagandists. It captures something very true and profound about the saint. Francis' earliest biographers, who wrote during his lifetime, tell of his preaching to birds and his encounters with a variety of creatures, as well as his addressing them as "Sister Lark," "Sister Cricket,""Brother Rabbit," and so forth.

It is, moreover, an accepted historical fact that St. Francis is the author of the "Canticle to Brother Sun," sometimes known as the "Canticle of the Creatures." What this song and his many interactions with animals tell us about St. Francis is that he did not perceive himself as isolated from other creatures. Obviously, he simply assumed that all creatures—not only the humans—form one family of creation. And we shouldn't try to separate or distance ourselves from them. Even when we pray, it's good to invite the other creatures to praise God with us, just as Francis did in his canticle: "All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made—first of all, through my lord Brother Sun...through Sister Moon and Stars...through Brother Wind...and Sister Water...and Brother Fire...and Sister Earth, our mother."

This familial sense of oneness with all creatures is closely linked with St. Francis' love for the feast of Christmas and his understanding of the Incarnation. In Francis' mind and heart, if the Word really became flesh and God really entered the family of creation, this event should really revolutionize our thinking about the world. Not only did the Incarnation bestow a great value on humans, but it also blessed and enriched other creatures as well. The whole fabric of creation took on an elevated dignity and meaning.

This is why the feast of Christmas meant so much to Francis and why he wanted the whole of creation to be part of the celebration. History credits St. Francis with beginning the popular tradition of the Christmas creche. The custom goes back to the year 1223, when Francis invited the townspeople of Greccio, Italy, to gather at a cave outside the village to reenact the first Christmas.

St. Francis asked the people to bring along an ox and an ass and sheep and real straw in a real manger. You will search the pages of the Gospels in vain to find any indication that an ox and ass were actually present in the stable where Jesus was born. The Evangelists simply do not supply such details. They come to us from tradition or legend.

In my opinion, the presence of animals around the crib comes as well from a deep sense in Francis—and, indeed, in all of us—that these creatures belong there because they too were deeply affected by the birth of Christ and his saving love. By right, all creatures should participate in the celebration of Christmas.

At the end of this e-newsletter, I will offer more colorful evidence from the life of St. Francis showing the saint's desire to include the animals in the celebration of Christmas.

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Saint Francis' biographers give us additional evidence that St. Francis strongly believed that Christmas should extend to all creatures. These writers inform us that St. Francis wanted the emperor to instruct all citizens to scatter grain along the roads on Christmas day so that the birds and other animals would have plenty to eat. The beast in the stables, too, should be given richer fare on the feast of Christmas and even the walls should be rubbed with rich food.

If St. Francis were alive today, I believe he would encourage us to include more and more creatures in our celebration of Christmas. He would probably point out that we are doing this already when we decorate our trees and shrubs and homes with lights. He might even go so far as to suggest that we put ribbons on Brother Dog or Sister Cat or serve them a special treat on Christmas day—or at least that we toss a few more sunflower seeds on the bird feeder.

Back in October, a reader of this e-newsletter, by the name of Andrea, shared a wonderful idea with me by e-mail. She informed me that on the feast of St. Francis, she "put together small bags of bird seeds and gave them to friends, coworkers and neighbors. I...suggested that they celebrate the day by enjoying a few peaceful moments feeding the birds and thinking about how they can become instruments of peace in the world." Wouldn't that be a great idea for all of us on Christmas day!

I borrowed St. Francis' idea of scattering grain on the roads and used it in my recently published children's book, St. Francis in San Francisco. What else might you and I do to include animals and other creatures in our Christmas celebrations this year?

Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year!


As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions via e-mail:

—Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

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