The place is Greccio, Italy, about 80km north east of Rome, an old hill-town village. It is surrounded by an oak forest. Trails lead through the forest to the summit of Mount Lacerone, 1204 metres above sea level. Here, St Francis of Assisi, would retire in prayer and meditation in a hut.
The year is the year of grace 1223. It is Christmas Eve; and the past year has been very trying for Francis and those around him.
There, the one whom we call St Francis of Assisi, three years before he died in 1226, decided to rekindle in the hearts of people something that they could see and deepen the light of peace and fraternity. Francis, recalling a visit he had made years before to Bethlehem in the Holy Land, resolved to create a ‘living manger’ he had seen there. The ideal spot was a cave in Greccio.
What was happening at this time in Francis’ life? He experienced inner struggles, these sometimes rather intense. He who became the brother of all had to overcome repugnance, conflict and tension around him. Being in solidarity with all of humanity always has a price and Francis had paid a high price. This demanding path was also for him a true path of liberation, of availability to God’s action and of openness to every creature.
The idea was twofold. First, to discourage would-be pilgrims from going to Bethlehem, a risky venture with the Holy Land being under the control of foreign forces. Second, Francis’ insight and genius for the simple recognised that people needed to ‘see salvation’ and how immediate and accessible it was for them. He wanted people to join the story of their lives to the story of one he knew as ‘Emmanuel’, God-with-us.
Remember that during this time there was a great flowering of theology and while it could be sublime, it was sometimes inaccessible to all but the learned few. Francis, in enabling people to ‘see salvation’, made God accessible and reminded everyone of the way in which God entered the world, as a vulnerable child. He wanted them to know their own dignity and what St Athanasius reminded people of faith, namely that ‘God became like us, that we might become like God’.
So word went out to the people of the town. To this grotto in Greccio at the appointed time, they arrived carrying torches and candles. Francis brought together an ox, a donkey, a little straw, a feeder and lots candles and torches, things close to hand, and these were enough for him to revive the spirit of Bethlehem, right there in Greccio.
As the Christmas Mass is about to begin, Francis, the deacon, remembers the faces and encounters that marked his history and made him what he became. From his father, a rich merchant, to the Sultan of Egypt, without neglecting the forgotten, the poor, the lepers he met, Francis himself gave the sermon that night. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, recalls that Francis stood before the crib, overwhelmed 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 saviour who chose to become poor for our sake.
This was 800 years ago. What we now call the crib was born then and still serves, in homes and workplaces, public spaces and churches, as a reminder of all of those things. Sadly, again this year it is not safe to venture to the Holy Land. For the peace of Jerusalem, and the whole of the Holy Land we pray.
We talk about the ‘Christmas spirit’ so much at this time of the year. For many people this spirit is typified by what St Francis did 800 years ago. In 2023 we all still long to see God. In 2023 we all long to be reassured that God has not abandoned us during the difficult times that the world faces. In an often complex and complicated world we all long for the simplicity of this scene and dare to believe that its message can be true for us.
The crib is a reminder of the words of one our Christmas liturgy prayers: ‘We see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.’
Although simple, Francis’ crib in Greccio was enough to arouse a great surge of fervour, peace and joy. This is something of the secret of Francis and the secret of Christmas, an authentically-lived Christmas: through poor means, we touch hearts, connect with the essentials and rekindle hope!
A celebration 800 years in the making
What might it mean for the people of today and our Church today? Francis is a man of passion. For him the Gospel is not a book, and much less an ideology to oppose the world, but is a rule of life, a life all together that draws us into communion with God, our neighbour, our best self and the whole of creation.
There is little doubt that Francis’ spirit, which draws us closer to the joy and spirit of the Gospel, is always a message for our time and enables us to ‘see salvation’.
A blessed Christmas 2023 to you and your families and loved ones. If you do not have a crib at home, might this be a good time to make one? As for Francis so for us, it only needs to be simple.
God is good, good indeed.