From St Bonaventure’s Life of St Francis of Assisi we get the enigmatic story of how Francis created the first crib, in the woods near Greccio, “for the kindling of devotion”. He first obtained permission from the Pope, for Francis, that most spontaneous and creative of saints, understood that you do not mess with the liturgy on personal whim.
He prepared a manger with hay and brought ox and ass to the spot, Bonaventure says. Then he assembled the brethren and the townsfolk and the woods echoed with their singing and the night was made bright by many lights. Solemn Masses were celebrated over the manger, the deacon Francis proclaiming the Gospel. Next he preached, “standing before the manger bathed in tears and overflowing with joy” and referring to Jesus as “the Child of Bethlehem, by reason of his tender love for Him”.
John of Greccio, an ex-soldier in the crowd, suddenly saw that there was a real child asleep in the manger who seemed to wake when Francis took him in his arms.
It was a miraculous, real Christ Child who graced Francis’s mise-en-scène, his coming somehow connected to the Eucharistic celebration and the embrace of the holy man. Bonaventure says that the hay was taken away by the folk and used to cure their sick animals and ward off plagues and evil.
Significantly, this touching account concludes the chapter of the Life which deals with Francis’s prayer. The crib is the fruit of prayer and contemplation. At the start of the chapter we read Francis’s motivation for prayer: “Francis, the servant of Christ, feeling himself in the body to be absent from the Lord, (that is, his passions and appetites were spiritual, directed towards Jesus), that he might not be without the consolation of his Beloved, he prayed without ceasing … with ardent yearning he sought his Beloved, from Whom the wall of the flesh alone parted him.”
The Christmas preface says that in the Child in the manger we see God made visible and so are caught up in the love of the invisible God. It is in this spirit that Francis wants to contemplate the Word made flesh; he desires to transcend the limits of earthly being and loving. He understands that the crib has a sacramental quality, the Christ of Bethlehem is the God of an eternal love and redemption coming close to us, sharing our nature so that in Him we might transcend it, becoming man to take man up into union with God.
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