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Pope Francis and Greccio Revisited

The connection between Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) and the first recorded Nativity re-enactment has been well documented by sources close to him. The year was 1223, and Francis enlisted the help of a friend to stage a reverent live rendering of the scene which had taken place in the stable at Bethlehem. The setting was Greccio, a small Italian town located about 55 miles north of Rome.

While this re-enactment was born of Saint Francis’ passionate love for the Infant Jesus and for His Mother Mary, it had the unexpected effect of inaugurating a tradition which has endured for close to eight hundred years. The crèche, or Nativity set, remains a beloved component of traditional Christmas decorations in homes, churches, and public places.

On December 1st of this year, the Pope who has taken the name of the little saint of Assisi made a brief stop at Greccio to sign his new Apostolic Letter entitled Admirabile Signum (On the Meaning and Importance of the Nativity Scene). In his letter, the Holy Father reflects on “the enchanting image of the Christmas crèche” with its basis in the words of Sacred Scripture; its focus on the condition of poverty; and its importance as a tool for evangelization.

Pope Francis urges us to imagine ourselves present on that blessed evening with “the background of a starry sky wrapped in the darkness and silence of night.”

“The nativity scene is like a living Gospel rising up from the pages of Sacred Scripture.” As described in Luke 2, we see the figures of Mary -- “ … the Mother of God who does not keep her Son only to herself, but invites everyone to obey his word and to put it into practice (cf. Jn 2:5)”; and Joseph – “the guardian who tirelessly protects his family … the first teacher of Jesus as a boy and then as a young man.”

Given Pope Francis’ continuing emphasis on poverty and the need for mercy for the poor, it is not surprising that a good portion of his Apostolic Letter focuses on this topic, as seen in the following quotes.

“… The shepherds become the first to see the most essential thing of all: the gift of salvation. It is the humble and the poor who greet the event of the Incarnation … the poor are a privileged part of this mystery; often they are the first to recognize God’s presence in our midst.”

“In a particular way, from the time of its Franciscan origins, the nativity scene has invited us to ‘feel’ and ‘touch’ the poverty that God’s Son took upon himself in the Incarnation. Implicitly, it summons us to follow him along the path of humility, poverty and self-denial that leads from the manger of Bethlehem to the cross. It asks us to meet him and serve him by showing mercy to those of our brothers and sisters in greatest need (cf. Mt 25:31-46).”

“The Nativity scene clearly teaches that we cannot let ourselves be fooled by wealth and fleeting promises of happiness … From the manger, Jesus proclaims, in a meek yet powerful way, the need for sharing with the poor as the path to a more human and fraternal world in which no one is excluded or marginalized.”

In another vein, in light of the current focus on the importance of evangelization, Pope Francis comments: “Saint Francis carried out a great work of evangelization. His teaching touched the hearts of Christians and continues today to offer a simple yet authentic means of portraying the beauty of our faith.” Indeed, during the Christmas season each year, Greccio remains the setting where numerous pilgrims experience local re-enactors staging the scene just as it occurred eight centuries ago.

As Pope Francis attests, “The Christmas crèche is part of the precious yet demanding process of passing on the faith.” As such, it remains an inspiring tool for evangelization on an annual basis, not just at Greccio but all around the world. Its importance as a continuing faith tradition for families cannot be overstated. The Holy Father reminds us of “our duty to share this same experience with our children and our grandchildren” just as we received it from those who went before us.

Pope Francis teaches: “This is how our tradition began: with everyone gathered in joy around the cave, with no distance between the original event and those sharing in its mystery … Like Saint Francis, may we open our hearts to this simple grace [that God is with us and that we are with him], so that from our wonderment a humble prayer may arise: a prayer of thanksgiving to God, who wished to share with us his all, and thus never to leave us alone.”

“It seems impossible, yet it is true: in Jesus, God was a child, and in this way he wished to reveal the greatness of his love: by smiling and opening his arms to all.”

Pope Francis gives us an uplifting reflection with many new insights into that beautiful tradition begun by Saint Francis of Assisi so long ago. May the Holy Father’s teaching remain with us as we gaze on well-loved Nativity scenes in our own homes and churches this Christmas season.

The full text of the Apostolic Letter can be found here.

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