December 24. Christmas eve. St. Francis wasinspired by his recent visit to the Holy Land where he had been shown Jesus’s traditional birthplace in Bethlehem as a poor and helpless baby. This was a source of great joy to him and he was astounded that God could be so humble as to come from heaven to live on earth, sharing the life of the creation, becoming our brother.
The story is told how in his exuberant and passionate love Francis invented a dramatic way to preach about this mystery. In 1223, a few years before his death, he created the first Christmas crib to give people a practical and personal experience of the incarnation of Jesus and what it meant for ordinary people.
There lived in the town of Greccio a holy man by the name of Giovanni. Francis called on him about two weeks before Christmas and said to him, “If you desire that we should celebrate Christmas together go quickly and prepare what I tell you, for I want to relive the memory of the Infant who was born in Bethlehem and how he was laid in the manger on hay between a donkey and an ox. I want to see all of this with my own eyes.” The good man departed quickly and prepared everything as he had been told.
On Christmas eve St Francis arrived and saw that everything had been prepared. He invited the people of the region into the cave that had been filled with straw and an ox and a donkey. He wanted them to feel the heat generated by the animals in the stable and to smell the damp hay crammed into the cave’s close quarters. (The image is a photo taken at Holy Family Centre Children’s Home when the children brought their toy animals to the crib.) The crib that was originally intended for animals’ food was prepared as a resting place for the infant Christ. St Francis came with his brothers and with the local people crowded into the cave and all gathered to celebrate Christmas with great rejoicing. Greccio would become a new Bethlehem.
At this season too Francis wanted the poor and the hungry to be filled by the rich; he said that more than the usual amount of grain and hay should be given to oxen and asses. “‘If I could speak to the emperor, I would ask that a general law be made that all who can should scatter corn and grain along the roads so that the birds might have an abundance of food on that day of such great solemnity, especially our sisters the larks’” (2 Celano, 199–200).
Christmas is about the physical birth of Love among us. It celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we believe to be the God who is Love. Simply put, Christmas is a feast about Love and Love’s decision to become part of the created universe by becoming human. Scripture tells us that the human race has been made in the image of God, who is Love (Gn 1:27).By understanding how we love, we can appreciate God’s decision to become flesh, which is the deepest meaning of Christmas. All of us want to be united with those whom we love. We want to spend time together, to get to know one another. In deeply intimate loving, we want to become one together emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Love by its nature desires that we be one with our beloved.