Wednesday, Nov. 30:
AM Psalm 119:1-24; PM Psalm 12, 13, 14;
Amos 3:12—4:5; 2 Pet. 3:1-10; Matt. 21:23-32
Francis of Assisi lived in a world divided even more starkly by social distinctions
than our own. He continually marveled that the Lord of the universe
had chosen to enter into his creation in such a meek fashion. As Thomas of
Celano put it, “So thoroughly did the humility of the Incarnation and the charity
of the Passion occupy his memory that he scarcely wanted to think of anything
In Advent 1223, toward the end of his life and ministry, Francis sought to share
his awe at Christ’s birth. The reenactment of the nativity that he orchestrated
at the tiny town of Greccio has now been repeated countless times around the
world. But Francis’ original crèche has become an object of special contemplation for me—both inspiring and convicting.
I keep my nativity scene in a box in the attic with all of the other Christmas
decorations. My parents have been helping us to build our collection, and we
now have shepherds, angels, magi, and even a few Old Testament prophets. It is
a handsome set, and we give it central billing over the kids’ Fisher Price nativity
and the stone figurines from Peru that we received as a wedding gift. Fifteen days before Christmas, Francis made plans “to enact the memory of that babe who was born in Bethlehem: to see as much as is possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he rested on hay.” Francis may have recruited
a local couple to stand in as Mary and Joseph, but Thomas mentions only a manger and draft animals in the stripped-down crèche, where “simplicity is given a place of honor, poverty is exalted, [and] humility is commended.”
I worked my way up the ladder in the Christmas Eve pageant as a child—from
a member of the angel choir all the way up to Joseph. Joseph’s carpet beard so
irritated my face that it left a permanent scar. The beard was one of hundreds
of props; there were bells for the pages, costumes for the camels, sequined wings
for Gabriel, and a splendid Star of Bethlehem. After we acted out Luke’s Gospel
account, we stood still while family members snapped pictures.
Once Francis had read the Gospel, he preached, pouring “forth sweet honey
about the birth of the poor King.” Then, “over the manger the solemnities of the
Mass [were] celebrated,” and the presiding priest welcomed Christ in the bread
and wine. One witness then had a vision of Francis approaching the manger
and gently rousing a lifeless child. “Nor is this vision unfitting,” Thomas mused,
“since in the hearts of many the child Jesus has been given over to oblivion. Now he is awakened and impressed on their loving memory by His own grace through His holy servant Francis.”
My father still prepares oysters every Christmas, and Dana fills our own home
with cookies and other seasonal treats. Like many Americans, we eat like kings
and queens throughout the season.
Francis had a collaborator at Greccio, a man named John, who “despite being a
noble in the land and very honored in human society…had trampled the nobility
of the flesh under his feet and pursued instead the nobility of the spirit.” After
the Mass, John provided the faithful with a bountiful feast. Francis later proposed that the rich should feed the poor every Christmas Day, and that Christians should give their draft animals double rations.
The pilgrims at Greccio filled the forest with the sounds of their worship, “ecstatic at this new mystery of new joy.” Their candles, torches, and love of God made the night “lit up like day, delighting both man and beast.” Amen.
*Thomas of Celano was one of Francis’ first biographers. All of the quotations
above are from his Life of Saint Francis, though I have also drawn on other accounts.
(Today’s exercise: All throughout the day pay careful attention to all the animals
that cross your path. Look at the “creepy crawlies.” Notice the birds that
fly above you. Watch the way fish move. Observe the movement of mammals
and other animals that roam nearby, perhaps even in your own house. Note
how “fearfully and magically” they are made. See how extravagantly God has
“clothed” them. Say a prayer of thanks for these creatures of God.)