Excerpted from chapter 15 of St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims
Less than a month after the papal approval of the Regula Bullata [the Rule for the Order of Friars Minor], Francis arrived at the brothers hermitage in the little town of Greccio a community in the vicinity of Rieti, located about halfway between Assisi and Rome. It was now December, and Francis had long been nurturing a heartfelt desire to celebrate Christmas in a wonderful new manner. He wanted others to share his own inner joy and exaltation at what for him was the most important feast of the year, since our salvation was heralded by the birth of Christ. He conceived of a simple way to awaken everyones love and admiration of the Christ Child, especially those who were weak in the Faith. 11
Giotto. Image obtained from here
His plan was to have Christmas Midnight Mass celebrated in the presence of a realistic representation of the humble grotto of Bethlehem, complete with live animals. For I wish to do something that will recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem and set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of his infant needs . . . 12 According to St. Bonaventure, he even obtained the approval of Pope Honorius, so that he would not be accused of willfully introducing novelty into the sacred ceremonies. 13
Francis had arranged beforehand to have his friend, the nobleman Giovanni Velita, make the necessary preparations and help spread word of the event. 14 A little manger or crib was set up in the woods near the hermitage, filled with the common, coarse hay that beasts of burden feed upon. An ox and an ass were then led to the place. Some later embellishments of the story maintain that figures of Mary and Joseph were also positioned about the manger. 15 Francis was delighted to see everything ordered as he had wished. To the Poverello, The sight of the crèche [manger scene] in its glorious simplicity was a symbol of the advent of lowliness, the exaltation of poverty, the praise of humility. 16
Image obtained from here
A host of brothers from near and afar descended upon Greccio, arriving from numerous friaries and villages. They joined with the crowds of local residents, field workers, and shepherds; all were drawn towards the manger where Francis knelt. The candles and torches of the onlookers brightened up the crisp night, reflecting their glow upon a light snow that had begun to fall. The sound of hymns echoed in the hollows and woodlands. Men and beasts and even nature itself radiated great joy on that special Christmas Eve it was truly the feast of hearts. The woods rang with the voices of the crowd and the rocks made answer to their jubilation. 17
Taken from chapter 15 of St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims,
by Frank M. Rega, TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., 2007.
was last updated on 12/20/11
Copyright 2007, 2011 Frank M. Rega.