St. Francis of Assisi and the Crib at Greccio
by Johannes Jergensen, 1914
Devotion to the crib or creche is no doubt of very ancient origin; but it remained for St. Francis of Assisi to popularize it and to give it the tangible form in which it is known at the present time. When St. Francis visited Rome in 1223, he made known to Pope Honorius III. the plans he had conceived of making a scenic representation of the place of the Nativity. The pope listened gladly to the details of the project and gave it his sanction.
Since that time devotion to the crib has spread over the entire world. Every year these representations of Christ’s birth-place are erected, and to them the faithful come on Christmas morn to adore their new born King. Many children and adults have thus been easily instructed in regard to the Nativity. For the same reason cribs (creches) are set up in private houses.
In the year 1223, Francis himself celebrated Christmas in a way the world had never seen the match of. In Greccio, he had a friend and well-wisher, Messer John Vellita, who had given him and his Brothers a wood-grown cliff up above Greccio, for them to live there. Francis now had this man called to Colombo and said to him: “I want to celebrate the holy Christmas night along with thee, and now listen, how I have thought it out for myself.
In the woods by the cloister thou wilt find a cave, and there mayest arrange a manger filled with hay. There must also be an ox and an ass, just as in Bethlehem. I want for once to celebrate seriously the coming of the Son of God upon earth and see with my own eyes how poor and miserable he wished to be for our sakes.”
John Vellita looked after all of Francis’ wishes, and at midnight of Christmas Eve the Brothers came together to celebrate the festival of Christmas. All carried lighted torches, and around the manger the Brothers stood with their candles, so that it was light as the day under the dark vaulting of the rocks. Mass was read over the manger as the altar, so that the Divine Child under the forms of bread and wine should himself come to the place, as bodily and discernibly he had been in the stable of Bethlehem. For a moment it seemed to John Vellita that he saw a real child lying in the manger, but as if dead or sleeping. Then Brother Francis stepped forward and took it lovingly in his arms, and the Child smiled at Francis, and with his little hands stroked his bearded chin and his coarse grey habit. And yet this vision did not astonish Messer Giovanni (John). For Jesus had been dead or else asleep in many hearts, but Brother Francis had by his voice and his example again resorted the Divine Child to life and awakened it from its trance.
As the Gospel was now sung, Francis stepped forward in his deacon’s vestments. “Deeply sighing, overcome by the fullness of his devotion, filed with a wonderful joy, the holy one of God stood by the manger,” says Thomas of Celano. “And his voice, his strong voice, and glad voice, clear voice and ringing voice invited all to seek the highest good.”
Brother Francis preached on the Child Jesus. “With words that dripped with sweetness, he spoke of the poor King who is born in the night, and who is the Lord Jesus in the city of David. And every time he would name the name of Jesus, the fire of his love overcame him, and he called him instead the Child from Bethlehem. And the word Bethlehem he said with a sound as if of a lamb that bleats, and when he had named the name of Jesus, he let his tongue glide over his lips as if to taste the sweetness this name had left there as it passed over them. The holy watch-night only ended late, and every one went with joy to their homes.
“But later the place where the manger stood was dedicated to the Lord for a temple, and over the manger an altar was erected to the honor of our blessed Father Francis, so that where the dumb animals formerly ate hay out of the manger, there men now receive the spotless lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ, for the salvation of their soul and body, he who in unspeakable love gave His Blood for the life of the world, and who with the Father and the Holy Ghost in eternal divine glory lives and rules for ever and ever. Amen.”
Prayer To St. Francis
O Seraphic Father St. Francis! I revere in thee the living image of Christ crucified. Born like Him in a stable, thou didst contemn a world which rejected thee; poor like Him, thou didst esteem no possessions but those which are eternal; meek and humble like Him, thou didst count confusion and humiliation a joy; inflamed with an ardent charity, thou didst burn to increase His glory; thy love transformed thy whole life into one long martyrdom, and made thee strive by penitential works to satisfy the ardor of thy desires, until at last it impressed on thy body the Wounds it had long before engraved deeply on thy heart, and made thee a living crucifix preaching sweetly to men the sufferings and love of Jesus.
Obtain for me, O Holy Father, that I too may banish from my heart the spirit of the world; that I may esteem poverty and humiliations above wealth and honors; that I may mortify my passions and advance daily in the knowledge and love of God, until at last, detached from myself, from the world, and from all creatures, I may live for God alone, and like thee, may say with my whole heart: My God and my all, my inheritance and my joy in time and eternity. Amen.