by Fr. Catalino G. Arevalo, SJ
One of the best-known and best-loved stories connected with Christmas is that of Francis of Assisi’s belen at Greccio. Francis called it the presepio, the crib, and we are told that he first put up his nativity scene in a dark little cave at a hillside just off the valley of Rieti, in 1223, on Christmas eve. Greccio is a little town hidden away among the hills, and was one of Francis’ favourite retreat places.
“For Francis, Christmas had always been the ‘Feast of Feasts’, the feast of light and hope in a dark world,… the day when ‘heaven and earth are made one’, when ‘God condescended to be fed by human love’. Autumn 1223 had been a time of special difficulty. Even if Pope Honorius III had just approved his Rule, Francis was suffering from severe depression. Perhaps he felt that his public career was now over, and he had henceforth to begin the final chapter of his own life, a final chapter that would mean making the passion and dying of his Master, Christ, more totally his own, reliving the final mysteries of Jesus in his own flesh.
As Advent was ending, he called his old friend Giovanni Bellita, a landowner in the region. “Go before me to Greccio and prepare everything as I tell thee. I desire to represent the birth of the Child in Bethlehem in such a way that with the eyes of our bodies we may see that he suffered for lack of the things for a new-born Baby, and how He lay in the manger between the ox and the ass. At midnight we will clelbrate Mass over the manger before all the people.”
Friend Giovanni hastened to do as Francis had asked him. A manger was filled with straw and hay; and an ox and an ass were brought in. The friars and their friends in the neighbourhood were told of the coming celebration.
St. Bonaventure has described the scene for us. The people came, walking through the woods, over the winding roads, going up and down the hills, bearing torches and singing hymns in the night; a particularly clear and lovely night, we are told. “The forest resounded with their voices,” Bonaventure writes. “That memorable night was made glorious by many brilliant lights and joyful psalms of praise. The entrance to the cave was open, and the multitude crowded the slopes around it, those craning their necks to get a view of what was happening within.”
The priest, with great devotion, used the manger itself as an altar, as Francis bade him do. Ox and ass watched from either side. Francis, in the full regalia of the deacon (for he was a deacon), had a time cast off his depression, and was as excited and joyful as a child might be. He read the Gospel in his strong, clear voice, and then preached to the people, “of sweet things on the birth of the poor king in little Bethlehem. Whenever he announced the name of Jesus,… his mouth was filled not only with his voice, but also with the tender overflowing emotion he felt his soul.” All those present were moved powerfully by his words, and all their attention was focused on the mystery of the holy birth of the Babe in the manger. As for Francis, at that moment “he was no longer in Greccio; his heart was in Bethlehem.”
In the small chapel at Greccio today, this inscription is to be found: “Ïn hoc sacello Franciscus reclinavit Christum in Praesepio” (“In this chapel, Francis laid Christ in the crib.”) Some documents report that the image of the Babe of Bethlehem, placed there in the manger, was the wooden image of a child asleep. But Giovanni Bellita is said to have sworn that as Francis took the figure in his arms, the Babe awoke and had become a real child lying there in Francis’ embrace, and smiling up to him. And Francis, all lost in wonder and tenderness, his face shining in the radiant light that came from the Christ-child, seemed wholly transported to heaven. The dark night of the soul which had for so many weeks possessed him seemed to have lifted for a while on that Christmas night which no one present would ever forget – the Christmas night, which a few months later, would be followed by a miracle at La Verna, the searing Vision of the Winged Seraph, and then the wounds of the Lord burned into his own body; not his spirit only, but his flesh also, transformed into the image of the crucified Christ.
To be continued tomorrow.