How St. Francis set up a Nativity scene on Christmas Day
His determined ideal, his most ardent desire, his firmest wish, was to observe the holy Gospel on every point, and in every circumstance, to conform himself with zeal, application, energy and fervor to the doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and to imitate His example. He would think of His words in diligent meditation and entertain the memory of His acts with profound contemplation. Two subjects especially had such a firm hold on him that he could scarcely think of anything else: the humility manifested by the Incarnation, and the love manifested by the Passion.
“I wish to evoke the memory of the Child born in Bethlehem”
That is why I wish to piously preserve the memory of what he did in Greccio one Christmas day, three years before his death. There lived in this province a man named John, of good reputation and an even better life, and blessed Francis loved him greatly, for, despite his lofty lineage and his important charges, he gave no importance to nobility of blood and desired to acquire nobility of the soul.
About two weeks before Christmas, Francis called for him as he often did. “If you are willing,” he told him,
let us celebrate the upcoming feast of the Lord in Greccio; leave now and take care of the preparations that I shall explain to you. Indeed I wish to evoke the memory of the Child who was born in Bethlehem and of all the discomforts He endured from His earliest childhood; I wish to see Him, with the eyes of my flesh, as He was, lying in a manger and sleeping on the hay, between an ox and an ass.”
The faithful friend ran in all haste to prepare what the saint had asked for in the village.
The day of joy came, the time of rejoicing began. All the brothers from several convents in the area were called. Men and women, the people of the country, with joy in their hearts, prepared, each one according to his possibilities, torches and candles to illumine that night on which the shining Star rose to enlighten all of time. Upon his arrival, the saint saw that all was ready and rejoiced.
A manger and hay had been set out, with an ox and an ass beside it. Simplicity was truly honored, it was the triumph of poverty, the best lesson in humility; Greccio had become a new Bethlehem. The night was as bright as day and as satisfying for the animals as for the men. The crowds arrived, and the renewal of the mystery renewed their cause for joy.
The woods rang with song and the mountains echoed the joyous sounds. The brothers sang the praises of the Lord, and the night was spent in rejoicing. The saint spent the evening standing before the manger, broken with compassion, and filled with unutterable joy. Finally, Mass was celebrated with the manger as an altar, and the celebrating priest felt a piety he had never before experience.
A small motionless child whom the saint’s approach seemed to awaken
Francis put on the dalmatic, for he was a deacon, and sang the Gospel with a resounding voice. His vibrant and gentle voice, clear and resounding, invited all the assistants to the highest joy. He then preached to the people and his words were sweet as honey as he spoke of the birth of the poor King and the little town of Bethlehem. Speaking of Jesus Christ, he tenderly called Him “the child of Bethlehem”, and proclaimed this word “Bethlehem” like the bleat of a lamb; all his voice and all his love were on his lips. One might have believed, as he pronounced “Jesus” and “child of Bethlehem”, that he was licking his lips as if to savor the sweetness of the words.
Among the graces showered down by the Lord in this place, can be counted the admirable vision with which a man of great virtue was then favored. He saw laying in the manger a small motionless child whom the saint’s approach seemed to awaken. This vision was most appropriate, for the Child Jesus was indeed sleeping forgotten deep in many hearts until the day when His servant Francis revived His memory and imprinted it indelibly in those hearts. After the night’s solemnities were over, everyone returned home full of joy.
In Greccio, the Nativity scene has become a temple consecrated to the Lord
The hay from the manger was kept “that the Lord might heal the livestock, so great is His mercy!” Indeed many animals of the region, afflicted with divers ailments, ate of this hay and were healed. What is more, women who during painful and difficult childbirth held a few strands of the hay gave birth successfully. Crowds of men and women were able in this way to recover their health.
The Nativity scene became a temple consecrated to the Lord; on the site of the manger, an altar was built in honor of blessed Father Francis, that where animals once ate their meal of hay, men might henceforth, for the health of their bodies and of their souls, eat the flesh of the Lamb Who gave Himself to us, He Who lives and reigns forever in glory with the Father and the Holy Ghost, world without end. Amen. Alleluia, Alleluia!
Thomas de Celano (Vita Prima, ch. 30)