I love the passion St. Francis of Assisi had after his visit to Bethlehem. The trip St. Francis took to the Holy Land did, in fact, have ripple effects to everyone around the world. It was during this trip he began to have a desire to recreate the birth of Jesus in a form that others could see.
In the year 1223 St. Francis fulfilled his desire and dream by displaying the first nativity set in Greccio, Italy. As a result of his fame, the midnight Mass he was to preach at could not be held inside because of the large crowd. The issue gave St. Francis the idea to hold the Mass outside, and therefore, display his nativity scene.
I can imagine the spectacle and scene when it was ready for the people to see. I can imagine St. Francis looking up on the set and being transported to another time and place where God became man. Where the King of Kings slept in a feeding trough.
Once St. Francis gathered a baby (we are not certain if it was a live baby or a carved image of one. Many believe it was a baby made of paraffin), found a cave, gathered hay for the child, and an ox and donkey to stand by the manger, he was ready for Mass. Just like in typical St. Francis fashion, the only players in the nativity scene other than Jesus were animals. It was all intentional and with a purpose in mind.
The news went out to all the townspeople, and many rushed to the site carrying their candles and torches just to get a glimpse of this scene that helped remind all of them of the moment when heaven touched earth. Now, they would not only get to hear St. Francis preach but they would be able to experience something very different that, I suspect, changed many of their lives. They were able to truly experience the nativity in a way never available until St Francis arrived.
But, to Francis, it was more than just depicting the moment Jesus came to earth.
Modern day nativity scenes, sometimes elaborate with the additions of the shepherds and Maggi, focus on the Incarnation of Christ. St. Francis, on the other hand, wanted a different focus. He wanted a specific focus on something regarding the birth of Jesus. He wanted to highlight the poverty of Jesus. His nativity scene was to show that Jesus, even from his birth, suffered discomfort and poverty. It was not the coming of the Messiah the Jews, or anyone else for that matter, expected. The Lord did not arrive in a chariot to conquer with an army. For perhaps the first time, many understood Jesus came to serve rather than to conquer with force. He came to rule with love rather than wealth and a large military.
St. Francis wanted those around him to reflect on the poverty of the Lord and how the simplicity of the nativity reminds us that Jesus humbled Himself. He not only humbled Himself in the form of a baby, but his humility and humbleness were much more than that on Christmas night. It was in the external poverty of Jesus that we truly see the humanity of Christ and the compassion of God. We must make room in our life for the poor and not turn them away as the Holy Family was turned away that night. That is the focus on St. Francis’ nativity. That is the message the great saint wants us to hear. We are focused, many times, on our own needs and life that we do not make time to help the poor. The nativity redirects our focus.
After the arrival of the townspeople, one of the friars began celebrating Mass at the site. St. Francis of Assisi himself delivered the homily and spoke about the Messiah. He spoke about the discomfort, poverty, and unexpected way the Lord came to earth. In essence, that midnight Mass held outdoors with the first nativity scene set the stage for us to remember just how important salvation’s mission was to God. Thus, we should never forget how important we are to the Lord.
Jesus understands discomfort. He knew it from his first breath. Jesus understands what it’s like to struggle to have a roof over your head or put food on the table. He only had a cave to keep him out of the weather when he was born. He understands that sometimes, the only food we may have is Him, but the only food we will ever truly need is Him. He knows what it is like to have everything and then have nothing, for He came from his throne in heaven to a cave.
Jesus understands your struggles, fears, and stresses of life. He has always understood – even from the manger.