Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 24, 2007
A Franciscan view of Christmas
Francis' simple cré focused on Eucharist instead of baby Jesus and cast of characters
- CNS photo by Roy Horner
By ALICIA AMBROSIO
and LAURENT GALLANT, ofm
The air is crisp and the night is dark, only the stars illuminate the night. In the distance a faint noise can barely be heard. Slowly the noise gets louder. In the distance a strange glowing light can be seen. It seems to be coming closer, even though occasionally it disappears on it's way up the rocky hillside.
All at once light bursts through the darkness with a flourish of voices, singing happily. A group of shepherds, women and children holding glowing torches come to rest before a small grotto carved out of the scraggly hillside.
Inside the grotto a manger full of hay lies empty. In front of that grotto, in the glowing warmth, there is once again silence. A man wearing a simple brown robe with a cord around his waist stands before the group and begins to sing the Gospel.
This was the scene on Dec 24, 1223 in Greccio, Italy. Greccio is a small, hilltop town in the Rieti valley in central Italy. The man described is St. Francis of Assisi, then a deacon in his 40s. He is credited with having organized the first popular Christmas crŠche, in an attempt to revive the practice of celebrating Christ's birth. It seems the practice of celebrating Christmas had suffered a decline during the early Middle Ages.
Francis' crŠche, unlike those that came after, was strikingly simple. There were no statues of Mary and Joseph, of angels or shepherds. The reasoning was that all the townsfolk were shepherds themselves and in coming to see the crŠche they completed the scene.
There was no statue of Jesus as a baby. Instead, Jesus was represented in the Eucharist that was celebrated in the grotto, over the crŠche.
Francis' celebration seems to have been effective. During the Mass one of Francis' assistants had a vision of a lifeless baby lying in the crŠche. In this vision the lifeless baby came to life as Francis approached him.
The true meaning
This was taken as a sign that Francis had indeed managed to bring the people of Greccio back to the true meaning of Christmas. Since then the people of Greccio have recreated that Nativity scene every Christmas Eve.
Francis was also a psalm writer and wrote a little-known Christmas psalm that offers a deeply theological view of Christmas. His Christmas psalm is a four-part song with each section highlighting a different aspect of the birth of Jesus.
In the first section Francis echoes the Christmas Eve liturgy speaking of Christ as "King over all the earth." This first section is Francis reminding listeners that God is above all kings on earth and Jesus, as his Son, shares in that kingship, but is also one of us.
God's gift of Jesus
In the second section of the psalm, he looks at Jesus' birth as an historical event that took place in Bethlehem. He focuses on God sending his son to earth and highlights that this is all part of God's plan. Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary, in a stable in Bethlehem, because the inn was fully booked, is all part of God's plan, Francis reminds the faithful. Jesus is referred to as God's peace and God's mercy, driving home the idea that he is a gift.
The third section has Francis calling all of creation to rejoice, to celebrate the fact that God sent his only Son to earth, for us, as a fragile, human baby.
While other narratives tend to refer to Jesus' birth as something that concerns all humanity, Francis goes one step further.
Let all the earth rejoice
True to his love of the earth and animals, he says Christ's birth is something that concerns all of creation, not just the humans.
He doesn't say, "let all humans, rejoice and be glad" but "let the heavens rejoice and earth exult, let the sea and all that is in it roar, let fields and everything in them sing."
The final section of Francis' psalm is a dismissal or sending-off of sorts. He has proclaimed the news of Christ's birth, recounted the historical event, told all of creation to rejoice and now sends his listeners off.
But if Francis has already told his listeners, and the rest of creation, to rejoice, what could he possibly tell his listeners to do now?
He fast forwards through time, in a sense, and speaks of Christ's cross. It's not a particularly happy thing to talk about at Christmas, but Francis has a reason. Jesus is the mercy of God and as such, frees us from the bonds of sin.
Free from sin
If we are free of the bonds of sin, we are free to take up Jesus' cross, according to Francis' reasoning. This differs somewhat from the usual idea that we must all bear our crosses. However, Francis remembers Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus carry his cross.
Francis invites everyone to become like Simon for others, especially for those who have a particularly heavy burdens to bear. It is by being free of the bonds of sin, by putting aside our own burdens and helping others with theirs that we fulfill "the Lord's most holy commands," as Francis says in this section.
That command, of course, is the command to love God and neighbour. Francis suggests that by helping others bear their crosses we find love of God in our neighbour.
St. Francis' vision of Christmas is simple, a time for all creation to rejoice because God sent his mercy to earth, in the form of his Son. Because of Jesus, who is not just King of Kings, but also one of us, humans are free from the bonds of sin and can unite with Jesus by taking up his cross.