As I get ready to get my manger and nativity figurines out my thoughts turn to St Francis. It is to Francis of Assisi that we owe the popularity and presentation of modern nativity scenes. Francis didn’t invent the creche scene or the living nativity, but his vision of the manger where Christ was born lasts to this day.
Francis required his monks to create in the village of Greccio a cave with a manager (a straw filled feeding trough) where they would celebrate the feast of the nativity. There the monks held mass with the villagers, celebrating the Eucharist, Francis read the gospel that night and was the preacher. (Francis never officiated because he was never ordained a priest.) People didn’t dress to reenact the nativity but in the manager that night it was reported that people saw a vision of a perfect babe laying in the crib. Francis’s gift was to bring the nativity to the common people and to remind everyone that Christ the King was born into the most miserable poverty, born in a barn with a feeding trough for a crib. Francis wanted to remind the people of Italy that the Christ child was born without all of the usual comforts and necessities of a 13th century child. In imitation of Francis, nativity scenes began to be created first for churches and then for homes, often reflecting the world of a 13th century Italian peasant.
Bonaventure would later write in the official Life of Francis of Assisi:
that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed.
In truth, Francis’ celebration of the nativity was controversial, almost as controversial as placing nativity scenes on public spaces today. The pope of the day did not like biblical plays or other similar celebrations, and Francis was skating on the edge again. A few years earlier, Francis was removed as the head of his own order, the Friar’s Minor. While the official sources say he relinquished it by his choice, this is unlikely to have been the case. Francis’ practices and rigor were unsustainable for an order of the size his Friar’s Minor had grown into and his system was not capable of basic governance. He spent his last years trying to influence his order and society in ways that were open to him, by the example of his life and practices. The nativity scenes in churches and homes across the world are one illustration of how effective the example of one life can be.
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