St. Francis at Greccio (1223-1226)
After the suffering, the struggles and darkness of the rule difficulties, Francis turned to Our Lord with a new self dedication, an increase of love, and faith and his mind may easily have reverted to Bethlehem and Calvary. It was Advent, and before leaving Rome he asked the Pope’s permission to represent outwardly the poverty of Christ in the manger. He may have remembered Nativity dramas seen during his childhood in which the crib, that is a representation of the manger, was the center of the play; such plays have fallen into disrepute and had been forbidden, which explains the reason for Francis’ request.
Shortly before Christmas he was back on Monte Rainerio and sent for a friend Giovanni Vellita, and told him to prepare for the feast in the hermitage of Greccio, which was another of Francis’ favorite mountain retreats, “I desire to represent the birth of that Child in Bethlehem in such a way that with our bodily eyes we may see all that He suffered for lack of necessities for a new-born babe, and how He lay in the manger between the ox and ass.”
For Francis Christmas had always been the “feast of feasts”, the feast of light and hope, of peace and joy and brotherly love, the day when “Heaven and earth are made one”, when God “condescended to be fed by human love.” He would have liked to see every poor man handsomely entertained, and every ox and ass treated to double rations, and corn scattered for the birds. Christmas was the feast of Lady Poverty, and when at dinner a brother spoke of the poverty suffered by Christ and His Mother in Bethlehem, Francis weeping for compassion, would no longer sit at the table, but finished his food crouching on the floor. He wanted, not to preach a sermon on poverty, but to illustrate once again for himself and for every brother what was the poverty of Christ.
Giovanni willingly fell in with Francis’ plan and arranged a manger filled with hay, and sent an invitation to all the friars and people of the neighborhood; and many brothers and good people came to the Greccio during that night when the weather also was most beautiful. A great quantity of lights had been kindled, many songs and hymns were sung with great solemnity by the many brothers, so that all the wood echoed with the sound, and the man of God stood before the manger filled with utmost joy, and shedding tears of devotion and compassion. By his order the manger had been arranged that Mass was celebrated on it, and blessed Francis, the Levite of Christ, sang the Gospel, and preached to the people on the Nativity of Christ our King, and when he pronounced His Name with infinite tenderness and love, he called Him “the little Babe of Bethlehem.” St. Bonaventure goes on to tell of the vision of Giovanni who saw a seemingly life-less child in the manger until Francis approached and woke him, “nor was this vision untrue, for by the grace of God, through His servant Blessed Francis, Christ was awakened in many hearts where formerly He slept”…”Greccio was transformed almost into a second Bethlehem and that wonderful night seemed like the fullest day to both man and beast for the joy they felt at the renewing of the mystery.”
Francis had succeeded in his wish that this particular Christmas celebration should “move people to greater devotion”; he had given new life to the crib of the Nativity plays, and his inspiration is still alive in every Christmas Crib in every church and home.
Francis’ joy that Christmas expressed itself in a canticle which he composed for the whole octave and which he may quite well have sung in the woods as well as in the chapel of Greccio.
“Rejoice to God our Helper, shout unto God living and true with the voice of triumph.
For the Lord is high, terrible, a great King over all the earth.
For the most holy father of Heaven our everlasting King sent his beloved Son from on high,
And He was born of the Blessed Virgin, holy Mary. He shall cry to Me, Thou art my Father, and I will make Him My First-born,
High over the kings of the earth.
In the day-time the Lord has commanded His mercy; and a canticle to Him in the night.
This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.
For the beloved and most holy Child has been given to us, born for us by the wayside,
And laid in a manger because he had no room in the inn. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.
Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad; let the sea be moved and the fullness of it.
The fields shall rejoice and all that is in them.
Sing to the Lord a new canticle; sing to the Lord all the earth.
For the Lord is great and exceedingly to be praised; He is to be feared above all the gods.
Bring to the Lord O ye kindred of the Gentiles, bring to the Lord glory and honor.
Bring to the Lord, glory unto His name. Bring your own bodies and bear his holy cross;
And follow His most holy precepts unto the end.”
Source: The Life of St. Francis by Casa Editrice Francescana – Frati Minori Francescana