“I wish to do something that will recall to memory the little child who was born in Bethlehem. . .” With these words St. Francis of Assisi began a tradition that carries into our day–the tradition of having a representation of that first Christmas beneath our Christmas trees, in our town plazas all throughout the world.
Francis’ highest intention, his chief desire, his uppermost purpose was to observe the holy Gospel in all things and through all things and with perfect vigilance, with all zeal, with all the longing of his heart, to follow the footsteps and teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. He would recall Christ’s words through persistent meditation and bring to mind His deeds through the most penetrating consideration. The humility of the Incarnation and the charity of the Passion occupied his memory particularly, to the extent that he wanted to think of hardly anything else. What he did on the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ near the little town called Greccio in Italy in the third year before his glorious death should especially be noted and recalled with fervent memory.
The year was 1223 and the place was Greccio, a village perched on a spur halfway up the western slope of the Riete Valley. A mile or so from it is the Sanctuary of the Presepio, a cluster of buildings clinging to the rock face like a buzzard’s nest on a narrow ledge, where St. Francis, with his unfailing ability to find a way into the hearts of simple men, initiated the custom which has spread through all the Christian world.
In that place there was a certain man by the name of John Velita, of good reputation and even better life, whom blessed Francis loved with a special love. Blessed Francis sent for this man about fifteen days before the birth of our Lord and said to him: “If you want us to celebrate the present feast of our Lord at Greccio, go with haste and diligently prepare what I tell you. For I wish to do something that will recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem and set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of His infant needs, how He lay in a manger, how, with an ox and an ass standing by, He lay upon the hay where he had been placed.”
The day of joy drew near; the time of great rejoicing came. The brothers were called from various places. Men and women of that neighborhood prepared with glad hearts, according to their means, candles and torches to light up that night that has lighted up all the days and years with its gleaming star. At length the saint of God came; he saw it and was glad. The brothers sang, paying their debt of praise to the Lord, and the whole night resounded with their rejoicing. The saint of God stood before the manger, overcome with love. The Christmas Mass commenced, at an altar placed in an overhanging niche. Never, the celebrant himself confessed, had he experienced such consolation while offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Vested in the dalmatic, Francis assisted as Deacon. At the proper moment, he intoned the Gospel in a sonorous voice; there he preached a sermon to proclaim the joys of Heaven to those men of good will who had flocked to his appeal.
Nothing could be more typical of Francis than this story of the Presepio, the Christmas crib at Greccio. Francis invited the peasants round about to attend a service at his hermitage, where a grotto, too small itself to contain more than a half dozen people, stood open to the hillside and to the forest of oak and ilex and the olive groves. And from all sides they came, carrying torches and lanterns, so that the little groups of lights could be seen winding their way up from the plain and down from the high villages. When they reached the clearing by the grotto, their breath steaming in the mountain air, they saw a picture which to us is a familiar as any in the whole catalogue of memory.
In that obscure grotto, on the fringe of a medieval world as racked by war and poverty and human foolishness as ours is – only the scale is different – that rustic audience saw the first Christmas Crib. ….and as they pressed in for a closer look, they brushed against the shoulder of one of the bravest spirits in all the long cavalcade of Christian history, though they cannot have known it as they glanced at the slight figure kneeling in the shadows – St. Francis of Assisi!
As we recall this story, 786 years later the message is still the same to all of us and to the whole world – Christ came that we may have life and have it abundantly. Yet there are so many who are spiritually lifeless and who do not care and who have no one to encourage them and share with them the good news of Jesus. This gift of life which we have received as a gift should be given as a gift to others. Francis of Assisi reminded the whole world of Christ’s birth – we should be reminding ourselves and others of the life of Jesus within us – that ONE LIFE which should bring all of us together in a spirit of joy. In our own little way let us try to bring the joy of Christ to at least one person everyday of our life.
May God bless you all during this Holy Season as we celebrate His Birth. Emmanuel, God with us! May God continue to shower His blessings upon you and yours!