– Br. Michael, ofm
Eight hundred years ago St. Francis was worried the people of Greccio were forgetting the Bambino of Bethlehem and how present Christ was to them in their every day. He desired the simplicity, poverty, and humility of the Christ Child to be made known and remembered. The beautiful vision St. Francis had to enact the birth of Christ was part of the Midnight Mass. This is important to note, it wasn’t just a show it was wrapped up in the paschal mystery; it was an invitation to know the intimacy of God with us. To see the poverty of the crib leads one to see the emptying of Christ on the cross and the new life in the Resurrection.
One of the earliest photos of me is taken at Midnight Mass with my parents at the crèche. In this photo Mom and Dad are holding me to show me the Bambino of Bethlehem and the scene. They brought me into the story and mystery, from then on, I have been captivated by the scene each year. I have been drawn in and called to see myself there. One Franciscan scholar says: “Francis’ representation did not include images, but only living beings. He wanted real protagonists.” The animals yes, but most especially the people who gathered, the brothers from various places, women and men of the area, rich and poor alike, stood side by side together. This echoes and is reflected into us and our living, by how we enter the celebration of Christ’s birth, how we gather as a community of believers. This season, a long time ago in Greccio, is not a time stamped moment rather it is a launching point for us and for our story now. It calls us to the manger to pause and calls us to the Eucharist to be nourished and share the good news as we go forth from each Eucharist.
St. Francis wrote in his Admonitions (1,16-18): “Behold, each day He humbles himself as when he came from the royal throne into the Virgin’s womb; each day He himself comes to us, appearing humbly, from the bosom of the Father upon the altar.” As we draw near to Christmas maybe we are coming tired and hurting. Maybe we are coming holding on to a faint hope and deeper desires. Maybe we are seeking shelter from the storms. Maybe everything just feels so out of control or out of sync. Maybe all is content and coming together. Maybe we are filled with wonder and awe. No matter how we are coming to Christmas, the poor Bambino of Bethlehem meets us. As we gaze upon him, he gazes into our heart, he knows our story and loves us deeply, he meets us in each Eucharist. As we look upon our Nativity Scene, as we gather for Christmas Mass, as we connect with family and friends the longing of our heart is stirred up. “Christmas fascinates us because all of us know deep down, in some way or another, the birth of this Child has something to do with the deepest longings and hopes which even today we still have not managed to shake off” (Dominican Cardinal Christoph Schönborn). What is burning-yearning-longing in your heart?
Friar Thomas of Celano in his biography of St. Francis says of Greccio Christmas 1223: “Here simplicity is given a place of honour, poverty is exalted, humility is commended, and out of Greccio is made a new Bethlehem.” This is what was burning in the heart of St. Francis. It wasn’t just a one-time moment for him, rather it is an invitation for him and still one for us and our community. Our hearts becoming a new Bethlehem because we have opened our lives allowing in the Spirit with our hearts caught up in the mystery of the incarnation which is life for all. This season as we open our hearts and homes, let us do so with same eagerness of St. Francis in 1223. For when we do we are sure to encounter and welcome the Bambino of Bethlehem and be filled with joy.
As you pray before your Nativity Scene consider:
How does my Nativity Scene remind me of simplicity?
Where am I invited to share joy this season?
What areas in my life do I need to work on humility?
How and where is my life being made into a new Bethlehem?
Who and what intentions do I need to carry with me to Christmas Mass to present to the Bambino of Bethlehem and put upon the altar?
Simplicity. Poverty. Humility. New.
All wrapped up in a child.
St. Francis knew these gifts and the Bambino intimately.
He reminds us we do as well when make space
in our heart for the Bambino of Bethlehem.
As Christmas draws near let us do so with hope and joy.