He sought to reignite faith by creating a tangible experience of Christ’s presence. At a time and place where reenacting scenes filled in for reading, as many could not read, St. Francis set about creating a living retelling of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. He summoned his brothers to set the stage. Townspeople ran together, the forest resounded with their voices and that holy night was made glorious by brilliant lights. St. Francis chanted the Holy Gospel, and renewed in the hearts of the people Christ’s living presence among us.
The idea for a live nativity occurred to St. Francis in 1223 on his journey back from Rome, where he had sought to obtain approval from Pope Honorius III for the Franciscan rule of life. After this visit, St. Francis went to pray in Greccio, a hillside town in the Rieti Valley in Italy where a well-off man and good friend, John of Greccio, offered him and his brothers a place to have solitude.
Just a few weeks before Christmas, Francis thought about his recent time visiting the Holy Land and seeing the places Jesus had been. More than any other figure in the history of Christianity, St. Francis lived to emulate Jesus. Indeed, his first rule for the Franciscan friars in 1209 was, “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footprints.” What better way, he thought, of walking in his footprints than to celebrate the Christ child’s birth through a reenactment, complete with animals and a star-filled sky above?
Just as Jesus gave instructions to his disciples to prepare for the Passover, St. Francis instructed his good friend and follower John of Greccio to prepare a manger with hay, gather some animals and let the villagers know about the celebration. Francis read the gospel at a cave on the mountainside where all could behold the humble, simple beginning of Jesus.
Thomas Celano, a contemporary of Francis and the earliest biographer of the Saint, wrote of the celebration in 1223, “There, simplicity is given a place of honor, poverty is exalted, humility is commended and out of Greccio is made a new Bethlehem.”
It is no wonder it was St. Francis who was inspired to create such an event, since the mystery of the incarnation is pivotal to Franciscan spirituality. The human Christ living among us being at once a sign of God’s great love for us, and a model of how we should live. Through this live reenactment where people could see, feel and imagine the harshness that the infant had to endure, St. Francis sought to reawaken the faith of the people of Greccio. He wanted to stir their hearts and call the community of Greccio back to the center of faith, to show the goodness of God to all.
How can we live Greccio in our daily lives? Like Francis, we can emulate the humble existence of Christ our savior, God’s perfect gift of love to us.