In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi inaugurated a pious practice that in places today has become so common that many think that it always existed.
This great saint, as he was traversing the rolling hills of central Italy one December to proclaim the Gospel, noticed that few of his countrymen were taking the mysteries of the faith seriously. Many were not preparing for Christmas at all. Of those who were getting ready to celebrate the Lord’s birth, they looked at it as an event tied exclusively to the past. The mysteries of the faith had become sterile. The central persons in the drama had become stale and lifeless, incapable even of stimulating his contemporaries’ imaginations — and therefore no longer capable of inspiring them to a greater relationship of mutual love with God in the present.
To counteract these tendencies, on Christmas Eve 1223 in the town of Greccio, Francis set up the first crèche in recorded history. He brought in live animals — an ox and an ass. There was a baby and a young set of parents. There was plenty of hay and a manger. There was even the attempt — with hundreds of burning torches — to create the luminescence of a bright star. And Francis could not have been happier with the results. People came from all over to see the living nativity. Through all the sounds, sights and even smells, the people became convinced that Christmas was not just a cute story, but a real event, one that was not just past, but one they were called to enter into the present.
Living crèches like this spread quickly throughout Italy. The phenomenon soon extended into art, as artists started to paint nativity scenes with the main characters dressed anachronistically in 13th century garb — to emphasize that Christmas is not just a past event, but, even more importantly, a present one, in which every believer is called to “go now to Bethlehem” and “pay [Christ] homage.” As St. Francis’ first biographer wrote, “The Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many; but, by the working of his grace, he was brought to life again through his servant Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory.”
The crèches in our homes, the beautiful praesepios in our churches, the Christmas pageants and living nativities in our schools and CCD programs all have the same purpose: to “bring the child Jesus to life again” so that he may be “stamped upon our fervent memory.”
To help the Child Jesus come to life in us, Pope John Paul II called us all to live an intensely Eucharistic Christmas...
Just as in St. Francis’ time, the “Child Jesus has been forgotten in the hearts of many.” While the minds of multitudes still recall details of Christ’s birth and their memories are full of the words of Christmas hymns learned long ago, their hearts can have amnesia. Their reflection on Christ Jesus in Bethlehem no longer sets their hearts on fire with greater love for him. Christmas still may inspire them to actions of love for others, like altruistically helping young kids buy “Christmas shoes” for ill mothers or serving as Secret Santas for so many in need. But it fails to elicit the most important reaction of all: adoring love for the newborn king of kings.
Prior to his death in April, one of our contemporaries — whom future generations will likely regard as a great saint like St. Francis — tried to do for us what the poverello from Assisi did for his generation. The means he proposed did not involve animals, or hay, or the best attempts to emulate a shining star. They involved something far more basic, which we can often take for granted and treat as lifeless as a plaster statue of the baby Jesus. To help the Child Jesus come to life in us, Pope John Paul II called us all to live an intensely Eucharistic Christmas, for the same Jesus who was placed in a manger and adored by the shepherds and wise men is placed in our hands and in our mouths in holy Communion.
The best way for the Child Jesus to come to life again and be stamped upon our fervent memory at Christmas, he taught, is to remember that God-with-us is still with us. Bethlehem is as close as the altar and tabernacle of the nearest Catholic Church.
This is indeed “good news of great joy for all people!” Merry Christmas!
Fr. Roger J. Landry. "Bringing Christmas to Life Again." (December 23, 2005).
Reprinted with permission of Fr. Roger J. Landry.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See's Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations in New York. Father Landry is the national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA. His homilies are posted each week at saintanthonynewbedford.com and he is the author of Plan of Life: Habits to Help You Grow Closer to God.Copyright © 2005 Fr. Roger J. Landry
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