Blog Post

A Centuries-old Christmas Present from Saint Francis of Assisi to the World

Chapel of the first live nativity in Greccio, Italy (Photo courtesty of Wikicommons Images , Fiat500e, CC BY 4.0 DEED)

by Theresa Cavicchio, OFS

For the many Franciscans around the world of the First, Second, and Third Orders – clerical, religious, and lay – the year 2023 inaugurated a series of important 8th-centenaries which will culminate in 2026. For our purposes, the timeliest of these has a deep spiritual significance as we approach Christmas this year.

Saint Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226 A. D.) could never have foreseen the far-reaching influence, in time and in geography, of the event he had envisioned in the outskirts of a small Italian village. This Christmas marks the 800th anniversary of the first recorded live Nativity, forever to be associated with its location at Greccio.

To grasp the significance of this event to Saint Francis, we first must understand his profound wonder at the reality of the Incarnation – that God would send His Son to take on human flesh and deign to live on this earth as we, His creatures, live.

This first-ever Nativity scene depicts also another aspect of Franciscan spirituality: love for God’s creation in all its forms, but most especially those clothed in poverty and humility.

Thomas of Celano (c. 1185 – 1260 A. D.) was an early Franciscan friar and the first biographer of Saint Francis of Assisi. His First Life provides moving details of the Nativity scene, shedding light on both the event and its saintly initiator.

Celano cites Francis’ desire “to enact the memory of that babe who was born in Bethlehem: to see as much as is possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he rested on hay.” Help from a willing friend ensured that the scene was arranged just as Francis desired in a grotto set on a cliff outside of Greccio.

Our Pilgrimage to Greccio

With open hearts, and with the words of Celano to guide us, we enter this holy setting, where “simplicity is given a place of honor, poverty is exalted, humility is commended, and out of Greccio is made a new Bethlehem.”

And what do we see? Only an empty manger and some hay; and an ox and an ass, the humblest of animals. Through eyes of faith, we notice that absent from the scene are human representations of Mary and Joseph, but we discern what Francis most desired to convey: the atmosphere of extreme humility and poverty. Our focus is to remain centered on that distinctly uncomfortable receptacle, and the imminent arrival of its holiest of occupants, for Whom it waits patiently.

What else do we see? “The night is lit up like day, delighting both man and beast. The people arrive, ecstatic at this new mystery of new joy.” Bearing torches and candles, friars and villagers come together in a sense of delight and joyful anticipation.

And what do we hear? “The forest amplifies the cries and the boulders echo back the joyful crowd. The brothers sing, giving God due praise, and the whole night abounds with jubilation.”

What else do we hear? The prayers of Mass proceed, and we listen as Francis, vested as a deacon, “with full voice sings the holy gospel … Then he preaches to the people standing around him and pours forth sweet honey about the birth of the poor King and the poor city of Bethlehem.” Francis’ joy overflows in words and tears as he contemplates the world-changing events of the first Christmas night being re-presented before his eyes.

Greccio through the Centuries

Celano describes what the future would hold for that holy place: “At last, the site of the manger was consecrated as a temple to the Lord. In honor of the most blessed father Francis, an altar was constructed over the manger, and a church was dedicated.” This hallowed site at Greccio remains a place of pilgrimage for many thousands each year, especially during the Christmas season.

Keeping the Message of Greccio Alive in Our Time

A quote from Pope Benedict XVI speaks to the timeless nature of the medieval event upon which we reflect here: “Saint Francis of Assisi was so taken by the mystery of the Incarnation that he wanted to present it anew at Greccio in the living nativity scene, thus beginning an old, popular tradition that still retains its value for evangelization today.”

What we take away from our pilgrimage to Greccio is far more than a sentimental journey into the origin of the Nativity scenes that grace our churches and our homes. Pope Benedict reminds us of our responsibility to evangelize: to pass on to others what those beloved figures truly re-present.

The Word of God became flesh, and dwelt among us!