The Catholic Defender: Christmas at Greccio
At that first Christmas crèche at Greccio, St. Francis wanted to show everyone there how close God was to them, how humble God is, how like a child is God who loves us unconditionally.
God is not removed in some faraway, mystical place;
God is with us, and we can love him with affection and overflowing love, as God has first loved us and continues to love us.
For St. Francis, a personal love of Jesus is the heart of Christian spirituality. And he himself was in constant conversation with Jesus.
Cave where Saint Francis of Assisi staged the first-ever nativity scene on Christmas Eve in 1223.
What better way to prepare for the arrival of the Christ Child than to take a brief journey to Greccio, the spot in central Italy where Saint Francis of Assisi created the first Christmas crib in the year 1223.
Francis, recalling a visit he had made years before to Bethlehem, resolved to create the manger he had seen there.
The ideal spot was a cave in nearby Greccio. He would find a baby—we’re not sure if it was a live infant or the carved image of a baby—hay upon which to lay him, an ox and an ass to stand beside the manger. Word went out to the people of the town. At the appointed time, they arrived carrying torches and candles.
One of the friars began celebrating Mass. Francis himself gave the sermon. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, recalls that Francis “stood before the manger…overcome with love and filled with a wonderful happiness…”
For Francis, the simple celebration was meant to recall the hardships Jesus suffered even as an infant, a savior who chose to become poor for our sake, a truly human Jesus.
Tonight, as we pray around the Christmas cribs in our homes, we welcome into our hearts that same Savior.
St. Bonaventure tells the story of Francis that Christmas Eve in Greccio in his Life of St. Francis:
“It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff.”
Christmastime in 1223, three years before he died. He came there wanting to celebrate Christmas in a new way, a midnight Mass with a real ox and donkey and with townspeople gathered around witnessing this live Christmas crèche.
“Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem. A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant so marvelous sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep”.
Christmas was the dearest of feasts because it revealed the profound humility of God in choosing to become a little baby, helpless and in need of us, just as we were when we were newborn babies.
“Indeed, so thoroughly did the humility of the Incarnation and the charity of the Passion occupy his memory that he scarcely wanted to think of anything else.
Jesus embraced both “the humility of the Incarnation and the charity of the Passion ” because he came to love us by becoming one of us. Love was the reason for the Incarnation.
And love is what Francis wanted to celebrate at Greccio by telling the people of the village and the surrounding countryside that he was going to celebrate Christmas by reenacting the first Christmas at midnight Mass at the friary.
For St. Francis, Christmas was linked inseparably to the Passion as well, because to become a human being means suffering and death. And there is already suffering in the Incarnation in God’s becoming human, leaving behind the trappings of divinity, emptying himself, as St. Paul says in his Letter to the Philippians, “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross ” (2:8).
Brother Thomas of Celano, in his Second Life of St. Francis, wrote:
“Francis used to observe with inexpressible eagerness, and above all other solemnities, the birth of the Child Jesus, calling it the feast of feasts on which God, having become a little baby, hung upon human breasts. He would avidly kiss pictures of those infant limbs, and his compassion for the child overflowed his heart, making him stammer sweet words, even like a child. The name Baby Jesus was for him honeycomb-sweet in the mouth. “
St. Bonaventure says that St. Francis called Jesus “the Child of Bethlehem, aglow with overflowing love for him; and in speaking the word Bethlehem, his voice was more like the bleating of a sheep. His mouth was filled more with sweet affection than with words. “