The Franciscan Bethlehem

December 04 2023 | by

IT IS WELL known that the first Christmas crib was made in the little village of Greccio by St. Francis in the year 1223, exactly 800 years ago. But how did this come about? Francis was now about 42 years old (not old by modern standards), but had for many years lived a life of hardship and penance. In 1219 he had travelled to Egypt, and since then his health had notably declined. What is more, the growth of the Order he had founded had brought problems he had never anticipated. The young troubadour of God, who had set out so joyously calling himself “the Herald of the great King,” and laughing when he was thrown into a ditch, was now the leader of many thousands of friars, living not just in Italy, but in France, Spain, England, Germany and many other countries. Francis simply did not have the gifts for organising such a vast family.


The Kingdom is here


As far as the Order was concerned, Francis handed over the day-to-day governance to, first, Peter Catani, and when he died to Elias of Cortona. The new Rule was promulgated in November 1223, and Francis was able to return to his first way of life, travelling from town to town proclaiming the Gospel by word and example. And what was the Gospel? What it has always been: the news that the Kingdom of God is here. And what does that mean? What is the Kingdom of God? It is not (as sometimes seems to be envisaged) an ideal welfare state to be brought about by human effort; it is the realisation that God is King, and specifically that God in Jesus Christ is King. When Francis called himself “Herald of the great King,” this is exactly what he meant. His vocation was to proclaim Christ as Sovereign Lord of all creation. But what kind of King?


Two poles


In St. Mark’s Gospel we see Jesus first working towards the moment when the disciples, with Peter as their spokesman, recognised him as Messiah, the rightfully anointed King of Israel. Once that happened, Jesus revealed that it would be through suffering and death that he would enter into his Kingship – something the disciples found hard to grasp. Francis from the beginning felt the call to imitate, and so proclaim, a King who showed his royalty not by display of worldly power, but in poverty, humility and weakness. And the two poles of this display were in his birth and in his death.

Accordingly, as his own life entered its closing stages, Francis wished to demonstrate these two Mysteries. In Advent 1223 he was in Greccio, about 45 miles south of Assisi. The local ‘squire’ (to use an English term) was a knight called John Velita. Like Count Tiso a few years later, and like many of his class of minor nobility, he was a devout man who revered Francis. Francis asked him to provide the means to make the Christmas story vivid and real to the parishioners, several of whom must also have been employed in the preparations. The parish priest must have given his assent – St. Bonaventure, in his later retelling of the story, says that Francis even got permission from the Pope for what was an unusual innovation. For the earliest account we must go to Thomas of Celano, for whom this incident is the climax of part one of his first Life of St Francis. Thomas does not say explicitly where the scene took place, but he states it was in the context of the Midnight Mass. As the parishioners assembled by torch-light and candle-light, they found that a kind of stable had been set up, with hay and a manger, and even an ox and a donkey!


Awakening Christ


As the Mass proceeded, Francis, vested as a deacon, sang the Gospel – which tells how Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem, how Jesus was born, and how the news was brought by angels to the shepherds – and then preached. Thomas of Celano says that Francis seemed ecstatic as he spoke of the poverty and humility of the Babe of Bethlehem, and spoke the word “Bethlehem” almost like the bleating of a little lamb! Then a certain man (St. Bonaventure says it was John Velita himself, and this would seem most appropriate) thought he saw Francis stoop over the manger and lift out a deeply sleeping child, who awoke as Francis held him. Thomas comments, “A vision not unfitting, since by his action and his words Francis was awaking Christ in the hearts of many people who had forgotten him, and in whose memory Christ, as it were, slept.”

This gives us the proper insight into what Francis aimed to do by his action at Greccio and in his mission generally. For himself personally, he wanted to imitate Christ as closely as possible, even in the details of his earthly life. But he came to realise that he was called not simply to be Christ-like himself, but to invite and encourage others to follow Christ. In the world of his day, the Christian faith was so well-known that it was simply taken for granted, so much so that it had ceased to be a living force in people’s minds and hearts. To use the language of St. John Henry Newman, they had a “notional assent” to the truths of faith, but not a “real assent.” It did not find expression in their lives. The rich had no compassion for the poor, cities were divided by partisan strife, Christian leaders (even bishops and religious) gave bad example by worldliness and immorality. This was the seed-ground in which heresy and dissent could flourish. Many leading churchmen, such as the great Pope Innocent III, saw the need for reform, but merely reforming the institutions could not in itself effect a change in the hearts of men and women.


Showing Christ


Francis, by his own example and that of his first friars (including St. Anthony), could bring about what no amount of preaching, however eloquent, could do. He showed what Christianity is about by, in a sense, showing them Christ. In so doing he followed the pattern of Jesus Himself. God showed his love for the world, his desire for men and women to be reconciled to him, by entering the world personally, by undergoing in his own person poverty and rejection (while offering healing and forgiveness to any who would seek it and accept it), and ultimately by allowing himself to be tortured and crucified to death. Francis tried to emulate this, and it is not by chance that in the year following his re-enactment of the Nativity, he re-enacted the Passion by receiving the Holy Stigmata. In this way, Christ himself set his seal on Francis’ life: “You have signed, O Lord, your servant Francis with the marks of our redemption.”

We have today, maybe, a harder task than Francis had. In much of western society the Christian faith is no longer even taken for granted; it is rejected or simply not known. To re-evangelise, we have to start from scratch. But there are still very many who do have a residual Christian belief, in whom the sleeping Christ needs to be reawakened. Perhaps our immediate task is to do that, as Francis did at Greccio. We need to focus on Jesus himself, his humanity in which he meets us. We must see him in the poor and oppressed, certainly, but that is not all. We must, as it were, show him to the ‘rich oppressors’, which includes those comfortably situated who feel no obligation towards those less well off. To bring them to repentance we must find a way to “waken Christ in their hearts,” to motivate them to behave as Christ would, offering healing and peace. 


House of Bread


Jesus is with us most intimately in the Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament. St. Anthony, in his exposition of the Nativity, draws attention the meaning of Bethlehem as “House of Bread,” and so linking it with the Eucharist. Mary is herself the “House of Bread” through whom the Bread of Life has been given to the world. “What goodness! What a paradise! Run then, you famished, you avaricious and usurious people to whom money is dearer than God, and buy without money and without price the grain of wheat which the Virgin has brought forth this day from the storehouse of her womb.”


Updated on December 04 2023