By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published December 10, 2021
Christ warned us about hardening our hearts. It might seem impossible for this to happen at Christmas, but the danger is losing the wonder. The tree, the carols, the cookies—and even the creche can become another chore in a long list of holiday events.
I thought this was just a problem of our times, but even in the 13th century, it seems some folks were losing their sense of awe about Christmas.
St. Francis of Assisi wanted to help ordinary people experience the joy of Christ’s birth in a flesh-and-blood way. Thomas of Celano, his follower, wrote sadly that the child Jesus had died “the spiritual death of oblivion in many hearts.”
Francis went to work reviving the experience of Christmas by setting up the first nativity scene. The setting was a cave near the town of Greccio. He used a carved figure of the baby, which he placed in an indentation of a rock. He also brought along a real-life ox and donkey.
Surprisingly, these animals aren’t mentioned when Christ’s birth is described in Scripture, but the donkey and the ox were familiar figures in early Christian art.
Donkeys symbolize suffering and peace, while the ox represents the cross and submission to God’s will. I find it quite lovely that all donkeys bear the markings of a cross on their backs!
The nativity scene Francis set up was certainly not elegant or costly. After all, a love of poverty was deeply embedded in the friar’s heart, as he imitated Christ’s life.
He and his friars lived outdoors, begged for food and shared what little they had with the poor. They were known to rip off sleeves from their garments to help someone shivering from the cold.
Francis believed Christ’s birth and death were connected by poverty and suffering. Just as Jesus suffered as he died, he also endured hardships as a baby, from the starkness of his surroundings.
The thought can be shocking: God was born in a stable, lying in a feeding trough, instead of at the inn, resting in a cradle!
St. Bonaventure describes the striking depth of this humble man’s love for Christ, when the townspeople gathered for the first Mass at the creche.
“The man of God stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears, and radiant with joy.”
He was so overcome with emotion he couldn’t pronounce the name of Jesus, and called him instead “the Babe of Bethlehem.”
A man in the crowd had a vision of the infant lying dead in the manger, until Francis embraced him, and he came alive.
Mass was celebrated over the manger with the townspeople holding candles and Francis assisting as deacon. Thomas of Celano was there and wrote: “Verily in that hour Greccio became a new Bethlehem.”
As we gaze on the simple figures in the creche, let’s pray we will experience the deep love that Francis had for Jesus. This is a love that doesn’t require riches or power. This is a love that anchors us to the Lord forever. Most of all, let’s pray Jesus will come to life again in the cradle of our hearts.
Artwork is by Lorraine’s late, beloved husband, Jef. Her email is email@example.com.