St. Francis and the Christmas Creche
There are many places in Italy that are associated with St. Francis – certainly Assisi. Many people have visited the medieval, walled city and the Basilica of St. Francis. Far fewer trek off the beaten path to Greccio, a small town located in the hills above the Reiti Valley. Greccio is the place where St. Francis constructed the first living nativity scene. St. Bonaventure in his work The Major Legend of St. Francis tells the story:
“It happened, three years prior to his death, that [Francis] decided to celebrate at the town of Greccio the memory of the birth of the Child Jesus with the greatest possible solemnity, in order to arouse devotion. So that this would not be considered a type of novelty, he petitioned for and obtained permission from the Supreme Pontiff.
“He had a manger prepared, hay carried in and an ox and an ass lead to the spot. The brethren are summoned, the people arrive, the forest amplifies with their cries, and that venerable night is rendered brilliant and solemn by a multitude of bright lights and by resonant and harmonious hymns of praise. The man of God stands before the manager, filled with piety, bathed in tears and overcome with joy. A solemn Mass is celebrated over the manger with Francis, a levite of Christ, chanting the holy Gospel. Then he preached to the people standing around him about the birth of the poor king, whom, whenever he means to call him, he called in his tender love, the Babe from Bethlehem.” (The Major Life 10:7)
As the account mentions, Francis wanted to stir up the passion and devotion to the birth of Christ. Why? Was it simply a pious practice? It was far more than that because for Francis the nativity scene was the great sign of the Incarnation. The very fact of Jesus, of God become man, transformed all creation. That the living Word of God would come and take on human nature and flesh, would become a small child radically dependent upon his parents, and depend upon the world for his needs, meant that all human beings were not only indescribably elevated, but that the goodness of the created order of the world was also being revealed.
In other words, through the radical poverty and dependence upon humanity, the Christ child reminds us that the world was no longer a land to which we were banished because of our sins. The world is good, as God created it, and it provides for authentic human needs. Yet, while the world is filled with God’s overflowing goodness, it is poverty that allows one to experience this goodness by becoming radically dependent on God.
This mystery of God’s humility and love in entering the world of humanity and of every other creature motivated Francis to celebrate the feast of Christmas in an extraordinary way. In celebrating the Nativity scene, Francis wanted to showcase God’s great love and the “humility of the Incarnation,” according to friar Thomas of Celano, his Franciscan brother and biographer. As Celano put it, “Poverty was exalted, humility was commended and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem.”
This “new Bethlehem” was not simply meant to remind people of their own God-given goodness. It primarily served to remind people that it was in the Incarnation, Christ come among us in that manger scene lived out in Greccio, that visibly demonstrated the centrality of Christ to creation, life, and redemption. The living manger scene was a way to celebrate the idea expressed in St. Paul’s most celebrated passage about Christ’s central place in creation: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible…all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17)
For Franciscans this means that we are to be mindful that all things point to Christ. It means that every human being finds, only in Christ, his or her fullest meaning. As Pope John Paul II points out in his encyclical Redeemer of the Human Race, Jesus is the key to understanding the meaning of human life. Christ, he asserts, “fully reveals human beings to themselves.” It is in and through Christ, the pope says, that humans acquire “full awareness of their dignity” and “of the meaning of existence.” Thanks to the Incarnation, we come to see our own life, flesh and humanity, and that of our sisters and brothers, as something embraced by God himself.
As Franciscan Scripture scholar Fr. Stephen Doyle put it, “There is nothing in this world that makes sense apart from Jesus Christ…The singing of the birds and the tinkling of the rain and the roar of the ocean all have one thing to say: ‘We were made for the sake of Jesus Christ!’