We live at a time in which Christmas crèches have become so much a part of Catholic piety that many believe that they must have existed from the first centuries of Christianity.
But they are an “invention” of St. Francis of Assisi, who 800 years ago this December, created a living nativity in the mountainous Italian village of Greccio, located about half-way between Rome and Assisi. The topography and architecture of Greccio — where Francis would frequently stay in to preach and to pray — reminded him of Bethlehem, which he had visited four years before. So with the permission of Pope Honorius III who in the previous month had definitively confirmed in Rome the Franciscan rule, and the help of Giovanni Veleti, Greccio’s chief nobleman, Francis decided to try to bring the mystery of Bethlehem alive.
His first biographer, Thomas of Celano, says that “of Greccio there was made as it were a new Bethlehem.” Per Francis’ instructions, Veleti arranged in a cave an ox, an ass and a manger full of straw. The townspeople came in huge numbers with tapers and torches that combined to illumine the night like the ancient star of Bethlehem.
Directly over the manger, a makeshift altar was erected to celebrate Mass. It’s the only recorded time that St. Francis served as a deacon: he chanted the Gospel with “an earnest, sweet, clear and loud voice,” preached “mellifluous words concerning the birth of the poor King in the little town of Bethlehem” and with “exceeding love” called people to adore the “Bambino” of Bethlehem.
Celano notes the impact the living nativity and the Mass had on the townspeople.
“The Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many, but, by the working of divine grace, He was brought to life again through His servant Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory.”
Note that the details of the birth of Christ hadn’t been forgotten in people’s heads; they had, however, failed to penetrate their hearts and lives. While they still knew the facts, devotion had grown cold. The nativity scene and the Mass — the Gospel, the homily, and the living presence of Christ in the Eucharist — combined to revivify it.
This Advent and Christmas, as the Church looks with gratitude to 1223, it’s important to remember the lessons of Greccio. The Child Jesus has similarly been forgotten in the hearts of many today and likewise many miss the connection between the manger and the Mass.
For the last several years, Pope Francis has been trying to lead people to Greccio, through Greccio to Bethlehem, through Bethlehem to the Baby Jesus and from the Baby Jesus to Christ today.
In honor of the octocentenary, the Vatican on November 21 published a book entitled, “Christmas at the Nativity,” compiling Pope Francis’ words over the last decade about Nativity scenes. In his introduction to the work, the Holy Father emphasizes that the crèche is a “living Gospel overflowing from the pages of Holy Scripture” and helps us to grasp that “the Incarnation of Jesus Christ remains the heart of God’s revelation, although it is easily forgotten.”
Pope Francis has visited Greccio in 2016 and 2019. On the second occasion, four years ago today, he signed a beautiful Apostolic Letter, Admirabile Signum, on the meaning and importance of the Nativity scenes and encouraged the faithful to set them up not only in their homes but in workplaces, schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares.
In the Letter, he noted that through the first nativity, “St. Francis carried out a great work of evangelization,” passing on the “beauty of our faith” and bringing the Gospel to life. He said that “setting up the Christmas crèche in our homes helps us to relive the history of what took place in Bethlehem,” “to imagine the scene,” and “to see and touch this unique and unparalleled event that changed the course of history.”
After leading us through a meditation on various elements of the manger scene — the star, the shepherds, the Magi, the animals, the landscapes, Mary, Joseph, and especially the Baby Jesus — he focuses on the ongoing evangelizing importance of the presepio.
“The Christmas crèche is part of the precious yet demanding process of passing on the faith. Beginning in childhood, and at every stage of our lives, it teaches us to contemplate Jesus, to experience God’s love for us, to feel and believe that God is with us and that we are with Him, His children, brothers and sisters all, thanks to that Child who is the Son of God and the Son of the Virgin Mary.”
Just as in Greccio eight centuries ago, however, so today it is important to make the transition from the past to the present, from the manger to the Eucharist.
In the cave of Greccio, there is a 14th-century fresco, showing on one side Mary’s breastfeeding the infant Jesus and on the other St. Francis adoring the Christ Child. Not only is it an image connecting Greccio to Bethlehem, but it points to the wondrous reality of how Jesus seeks to feed like Mary, on behalf of the human race, fed Him.
In the midst of the ongoing Eucharistic Revival taking place in the Church in the United States, we note that one of the reasons why a Revival is necessary is because the Eucharistic Jesus “has been forgotten in the hearts of many.” Much like St. Francis, in addition to what he did in Greccio, led a Eucharistic Revival in the 13th century, we’re called to bring Eucharistic piety “to life again” so that it may be “stamped upon … the fervent memory” of Catholics today and tomorrow.
The reality of the manifestation of the Incarnation in Bethlehem and on the altar has passed for many from the foreground to the background of their life. Just as many don’t ponder the meaning of the elements and figures of the Nativity, so many no longer grasp the meaning of the prayers and actions of the Mass.
That’s why, at the same time we seek to revive wonder before the scene of the Nativity, we, like St. Francis did in Greccio, also need to “build an altar” over the manger, to show the connection between the Child Jesus whom Mary, Joseph, the angels, shepherds, Magi and animals adored in Bethlehem, and the Eucharistic Jesus that the Church in heaven and on earth continues to worship on the altar.
As Pope Francis wrote in Admirabile Signum, when the priest in Greccio “solemnly celebrated the Eucharist over the manger,” he showed “the bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist.”
The One who would be called “Emmanuel,” or “God with us,” by His own supremely loving decision has in fact chosen to remain with us always until the end of time in the holy Eucharist.
The One born in Bethlehem — literally “House of Bread” in Hebrew — came as the “Living Bread come down from heaven” (Jn 6:51), so that we might eat of Him and experience salvation over death.
The Mass is the means Christ Himself implemented to perpetuate, revivify and advance the mystery of Bethlehem.
So this Advent and Christmas, as we prepare to go to Bethlehem to see what the Angels announced has taken place, we do so with renewed gratitude for the tradition of nativity scenes begun by St. Francis eight centuries ago that help prayerfully transport us there.
And within the Revival, we do so conscious that we have the privilege to do something that the shepherds, Magi, and even Joseph and Mary did not have the chance to do in Bethlehem: receiving within us to adore on the inside the One whom they adored in swaddling clothes.
The connection between the two, palpably celebrated by St. Francis 800 years ago this Christmas, will make the significance of the ancient mysteries of Bethlehem a beauty and reality ever new.