The Christmas Story in the flesh
18th December 2019
By Kate Scholl
The Christmas Story in the flesh
Website Editor, Kate Scholl, posts our final news story of the year with a reflection on St Francis of Assisi’s passion to embody the Christmas story for the people of Greccio, Italy.
Most of us raised in the Christian tradition would have a variety of memories of Nativity scenes from our earliest years. I can still picture as clear as if it were yesterday the Christmas crèche spread out on a window seat in our dining room in my childhood home.
Some years ago in Assisi, I enjoyed viewing a large outdoor Nativity near the Basilica of St Francis. Even though it was well after Epiphany, this scene included not just the usual stable, shepherds and three kings, but a town with scenes of every day activity within it.
In a recent letter, Pope Francis paints a picture of how Francis of Assisi started, in the small town of Greccio in Italy, the tradition of portraying the Christmas narrative in this dramatic way:
“Francis had earlier visited the Holy Land, and the caves in Greccio reminded him of the countryside of Bethlehem. It may also be that the “Poor Man of Assisi” had been struck by the mosaics in the Roman Basilica of Saint Mary Major depicting the birth of Jesus, close to the place where, according to an ancient tradition, the wooden panels of the manger are preserved.
The Franciscan Sources describe in detail what then took place in Greccio. Fifteen days before Christmas, Francis asked a local man named John to help him realise his desire “to bring to life the memory of that babe born in Bethlehem, to see as much as 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 was laid upon a bed of hay”.
At this, his faithful friend went immediately to prepare all that the Saint had asked. On 25 December, friars came to Greccio from various parts, together with people from the farmsteads in the area, who brought flowers and torches to light up that holy night. When Francis arrived, he found a manger full of hay, an ox and a donkey. All those present experienced a new and indescribable joy in the presence of the Christmas scene. The priest then solemnly celebrated the Eucharist over the manger, showing the bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist. At Greccio there were no statues; the nativity scene was enacted and experienced by all who were present.
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.
Thomas of Celano, the first biographer of Saint Francis, notes that this simple and moving scene was accompanied by the gift of a marvellous vision: one of those present saw the Baby Jesus himself lying in the manger. From the nativity scene of that Christmas in 1223, “everyone went home with joy”.
As I put up the crèche in our home this year, I will recall Francis and his passion for making the story of the gospel real and tangible for people of his day. Francis had been to the place in Bethlehem where the actual event of Jesus’ birth is said to have happened. Now, in that cave in Greccio, he senses that he’s again in Bethlehem, and has this strong desire to share his connective experience of the first Christmas with the people of Greccio in a flesh and blood way.
It seems to me that in our time we could describe Francis as a contextual theologian, engaging in theological reflection in that situation. His actions also seem to portray a theology of embodiment as expressed by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel who writes, “To believe with all the senses does not mean going off into a world alien to theology. It means engaging in a theology and again making the sensuality hidden in it capable of being seen, heard, touched.”
(From: I Am My Body: A Theology of Embodiment)
The story of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem is one we can tell and explore, wonder at, discuss in countless ways. Francis’ experience reminds me it’s also a story to feel deeply in my body and my whole self. How do I relate to and embody this story today?
Perhaps as we hear again the Christmas narrative and see the numerous crèches that will we pass through the season, we might go a bit deeper just as Francis did and consider what do I want to share from experiencing this story? What experiences in my life are touched by the birth of this child in such surroundings?
Pope Francis concludes his letter, “Whatever form it takes, the Christmas crèche speaks to us about the love of God.”
May we know for us this love to be real, embodied in us this season and shared throughout the coming year.