During our solemn celebration of Christmas, we see houses, businesses, and church buildings adorned with all sorts of lights and decorations. Among these decorations, the most iconic religious decoration is the Nativity scene consisting of an open stable containing hay, images of Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus lying in a manger surrounded by images of animals, shepherds, and the three wise men. Without a doubt, the Nativity scene is my favorite Christmas decoration, even more so than the ever-popular Christmas tree or Christmas wreath. While other secular decorations can be assigned a Christian significance in one way or another, the Nativity scene declares, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the true meaning of Christmas. It can be a special source of prayer and contemplation particularly throughout the Christmas season.
As a Franciscan, it gives me great joy in knowing that my humble patron and founder, St. Francis of Assisi, is responsible for beginning this Christmas tradition nearly 800 years ago. St. Francis is known especially for his profound love of Jesus Christ, the Holy Gospel, and the virtue and practice of holy poverty. In fact, among all the virtues of Jesus, the one that St. Francis found the most moving was poverty. Francis could potentially go into ecstasy for hours meditating upon how the Son of God impoverished himself so that mere human beingsmight be made rich with his grace. It was this devotion to Christ’s poverty that inspired in him a devotion to Christ’s infancy.
In his biography of St. Francis, St. Bonaventure, who was a contemporary of Francis, writes that a few years before his death, Francis wished to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord with the greatest possible solemnity. Having first obtained permission from the pope, Francis went to work on constructing a real-life creche scene, using real animals – an ox and an ass – and a crib lined with hay. All the friars were invited as well as any other people who wished to join in the celebration. There were candles and torches that provided light in the darkness of night and the brothers sang hymns before the crib. Holy Mass was celebrated over the manger scene and St. Francis served as deacon. He sang the Holy Gospel with great devotion and sweetness and preached to the people about the poverty of the infant King. He was so overcome with love as he spoke of the child Jesus that his tongue would lick his lips whenever he uttered the name of Jesus, as if he had just tasted something sweet. It is said that a virtuous noble man named John claimed to see a child asleep in the crib and that St. Francis had taken the child and cradled it in his arms.
This is the beginning of the centuries-long tradition of the Nativity scene. It began very simply with only a crib containing hay and two animals but now our modern renditions have incorporated many more images, such as Mary and Joseph, that give the scene a fuller picture. St. Francis’ desire in creating this scene was not only to bring to life the reality of the Incarnation and Jesus’ birth, but the reality of Jesus’ poverty and humility. St. Francis found deeply moving in the Nativity scene Our Lord’s willingness to impoverish himself for our sake. The Son of God not only became man, but he even entered our condition of poverty. He could have chosen to be born in a great palace to wealthy parents, but he chose the condition of the poor, the very people to whom he would proclaim the Good News of Salvation. In meditating upon the poverty and humility of Our Lord, St. Francis invites all of us to imitate these virtues in our own lives, to become detached from material goods and possessions and to humble ourselves in the sight of God, acknowledging our sins and weaknesses and opening ourselves to receiving God’s grace and mercy. After all, it is the poor, humble, meek, and lowly whom God ultimately exalts along with His Son in the kingdom of heaven.
Fr. Matthew Mary