Lives of the Saints
Our Models and Protectors

Spiritual Bouquet:

Eighth Centennial of the Manger of Greccio

The Nativity of Our Lord
Saint Francis at the Manger of Greccio

The Christmas
of Saint Francis

Saint Francis often said, “Christmas is the feast of feasts, for on this day God became a little child and was nourished by the milk of a woman,” the Blessed Virgin Mary. He never tired of contemplating the Infant Jesus; compassion for this little one moved his heart. Eight hundred years ago, Saint Francis celebrated the Nativity of Our Lord in a completely new way, one that was to mark the ages.

A few days before Christmas in 1223, the Saint was on his way to Greccio, a mountainous region with an abundance of caves. A dear friend, Lord John of Velita, accompanied him. Francis said to him:

“I would like to celebrate the Saviour’s upcoming feast with you. Go ahead, and diligently make the preparations I am about to indicate. I want to commemorate the birth of the Divine Infant in Bethlehem, so that I can represent to myself as perfectly as possible the sufferings and inconveniences which from infancy He endured to save me. That is why I want you to set up a real manger with hay on that spot on the mountain, and to bring an ox and an ass like the ones who kept the Infant Jesus company.”

This fine, faithful friend immediately set off to prepare everything the Saint had requested. The people of Greccio graciously lent him a hand, donating a donkey, an ox and some hay; one brought candles, another torches to illuminate this holiest of nights.

Christmas Eve finally arrived. The Brothers were summoned from the surrounding hermitages. Following them, in a long procession of light, came all the people of Greccio and the vicinity. Forest and hillside resounded with songs of joy. O holy night, delightful to Angels and men!

As he entered the grotto, Francis felt torn between immense pity and unspeakable joy. Greccio really was a new Bethlehem. In the background was the hay-covered crib; lying on the damp rock were the ox and the ass, whose breath hardly warmed the grotto, which was open to every wind. What a mystery of Infinite Love: it was in such poverty that the Redeemer of the world wanted to be born!

A priest celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Francis, who was a deacon, sang the Gospel. Then he preached to the people with the accents of a seraph: “He is born, the Prince of Peace. To win our hearts, He left the splendors of Heaven and clothed Himself in the tatters of poverty...” And such was the ardor of Francis’ love that he could not pronounce the sweet name of JESUS; he called Him “the Child of Bethlehem”.

Then the Almighty made his happiness complete. In an ineffable rapture, Francis saw the Divine Child lying motionless in the crib, who at his approach seemed to awaken from His sleep. That vision was a real reflection of the truth, for the Child lay forgotten in hearts until the day Saint Francis, by divine grace, came to awaken Him and imprint His indelible memory on people’s minds.

The solemn vigil came to an end, however, and everyone went home moved and delighted. The Greccio grotto was dedicated to prayer. An altar was erected above the crib. “Thus, where once animals were fed, men now eat, for the health of soul and body, the flesh of the Immaculate Lamb, Jesus Christ our Lord, who with immense and ineffable charity gaveth Himself to us, He the eternally glorious God, who liveth and reigneth with the Father and the Holy Ghost for ever and ever.”

The apparition of the Divine Child in Greccio was more than just a sweet vision. For several years the Seraphic Order had been divided over the matter of strict observance. Had Saint Francis been mistaken in commanding his followers to practice the Gospel to the letter? Had he been living in a state of illusion until then? Seeing the ongoing discord between the Brothers, the holy Founder came to believe this was so. He was filled with doubt and implacably tormented with anguish, to such a point that he was falling into discouragement. Then the Prince of Peace appeared to him, and the Child’s luminous smile dispelled the darkness of his soul.

More than ever, the world is plagued with discord; souls are experiencing doubt, anxiety, perhaps even disgust with life. With Saint Francis, let us pray God to transform us into peacemakers, who will make the flame of hope shine everywhere.

Based on Saint Francis of Assisi, by Thomas of Celano, translated from the Latin by Placid Hermann (Franciscan Institute Publications: St. Bonaventure NY, 1988).

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is injury, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring light.
And where there is sadness, let me bring joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek:
To be consoled as, to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in forgetting ourselves that we find;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

(Saint Francis of Assisi)

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