Celebrating Francis’ Favourite Feast
We celebrate Christmas in many splendid ways. One of the first items to appear in our homes, churches, schools and workplaces as Christmas approaches is a Christmas nativity scene, often in the form of a crib or creche. This year, 2023, the Franciscan Family is celebrating the 800th Anniversary of the Christmas at Greccio. We invite you to celebrate also.
But where did this popular practice come from?
The Nativity scene now recreated in city squares and churches worldwide was originally conceived by St.Francis of Assisi. However, nativity scenes have been found in early Christian catacombs in Rome and can betraced to AD. 380. It is more accurate to say that Francis popularised the first LIVE Christmas creche, for Francis loved Christmas. Thomas of Celano, the earliest biographer of St Francis of Assisi wrote: ‘the birthday of the Child Jesus Francis observed with inexpressible eagerness over all other feasts, saying that it was the feast of feasts, on which God, having become a tiny infant, clung to human breasts’ (2 Celano, 199). In 1223 Francis wanted to celebrate Christmas in a special way.
A medieval Christmas
Historically 1223 was part of the Middle Ages. For medieval Christians Christmas was a time to remember that Christ will be the judge of the world. [Mt 25: 31-46] Christmas was a period full of sentiment, anxiety and fear as people examined their year. One of Francis’ and the friar’s greatest difficulties with the renewing of the church was that the people they were addressing were already Christians. They knew the basic stories and teaching as we do. How would Francis reach the hearts of the people? Knowing that the traditional liturgical celebrations of the time failed to acknowledge God’s great love revealed to all in the Incarnation – [Christian belief that God takes on human form as Jesus], Francis prepares a different Christmas.
1223 – what did Francis do?
It was December of 1223. Francis and some of the Brothers were staying near the little village of Greccio in the Rieti Valley, Italy. Celano, the first biographer of Francis, provides an account:
Blessed Francis had John summoned to him some fifteen days prior to the birthday of the Lord. “If you desire to celebrate the coming feast of the Lord together at Greccio,” he said to him, “hurry before me and carefully make ready the things I tell you. For I wish to enact the memory of that babe who was born in Bethlehem: to see as much as possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he rested in hay.” Once the good and faithful man had heard Francis’ words, he ran quickly and prepared in that place all the things the holy man had requested.
- l. Francis of Volume l. The Saint. pp 254-255
Francis awakens the child Jesus-the babe of Bethlehem in the hearts of the people.
The Gift- God Becomes Human.
In a dramatic reenactment of the events of
Bethlehem, Francis celebrates God’s great love, a love
made concrete in a little child wrapped in swaddling
clothes. In this first living nativity scene, where
usually a baby is placed, Francis placed a table
around which the people celebrated the Eucharist
together. A tradition tells us that during the liturgy,
while Francis was preaching with deep feeling about
God’s love, the child Jesus appeared and rested in
Francis’ arms. With simplicity, the visual picture of
Bethlehem is immediate through props: an ox, an
ass, a manger, a cave, singing, light and the warmth
of love. Furthermore, Francis makes the Incarnation
real. He hoped that people would see themselves in
the Christmas scene saying, “here in your home, the
Word is made flesh.” In doing this Francis reminded
the people, and now reminds us, that Jesus who
came as a baby, comes every day when we carry
Christ within and birth him by doing ‘good’. Francis
places all this before the eyes of the people and
awakens Jesus in their hearts. Greccio was made, as it
were, a new Bethlehem.
Live the Gift of Greccio.
As you stand, kneel or sit before your creche, remember Francis’ living nativity in 1223 provided the impetus for a refreshing new way to understand the Incarnation.
Take time to reflect upon the following:
- “God so love the world that he came as a child.” John 3:16
- God first loved us. We have always been part of the divine plan.
- Jesus is born into the reality of our lives – everyday.
- God wants to share in our lives and we come to share the Good News with others with “sweetness upon lips.
- Jesus gives us his name. We are Christians and members of his (Jesus’) family.
- Jesus asks us to hold him in love.
- Jesus will judge us in love.
- We come to serve. In serving we birthJesus to our world.
Pope Francis says, “… It does not matter how the nativity scene is arranged: it can always be the same or it can change from year to year. What matters is that it speaks to our lives. Wherever it is, and whatever form it takes, the Christmas creche speaks to us of the love of God, the God who became a child in order to make us know how close he is to every man, woman and child, regardless of their condition.” Pope Francis, Admirabile signum, 3.
PRAY BEFORE THE CHRISTMAS NATIVITY
God, bless all who gaze upon this nativity scene.
As we look at this Holy Family, let us pray for all
families—those we know, and those we do not;
those who live on the other side of the world, and
those who live on the other side of the street. Let us
recognize and rejoice in the great diversity of the
one family of God as we reflect on and give thanks
for those diverse gifts present in our own family.
We pray this through Christ our Lord. Amen
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us! Blessed are
you Father, for sending your Son into our world.
I ask you to bless this Christmas crib which has been
prepared in your honour.
As I celebrate the birth of Jesus, may I rejoice in your
goodness and love for me and all of creation. I ask this
through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The invitation is to pray in the Franciscan path,
as Clare of Assisi would encourage us to do.
GAZE upon [Jesus] in the scene.
What do you see?
CONSIDER [Jesus] in any of the figures, animals
and objects before you.
Who is the God who comes to you?
CONTEMPLATE this God. Open your heart. Allow
time for the Gift of Greccio, the babe of
Bethlehem to speak to you. Listen. God will come
IMITATE [Jesus] in your desire to live the gift of
Greccio personally in your heart and in your home,
here and now. What action will you take today?