Christmas at Greccio


My friend and advisor, the Franciscan scholar Bill Short OFM, writes about the first nativity scene in his book on Franciscan spirituality – Poverty and Joy.

Two weeks before Christmas in 1223, Francis was staying in the little hillside hermitage near the town of Greccio, south of Assisi. According to his contemporary, Brother Thomas of Celano, Francis called a friend of his, named Giovanni, to help him in preparing a special celebration of the forthcoming feast. He asked that animals and hay be brought to a cave at the hermitage, so that a scene could be prepared to show the people of the town and his own brothers the physical conditions of the birth of Jesus.

He wanted people to be able to experience what it was like for the Son of God to be born in a stable, surrounded by the ox and ass, straw and cold. Francis’ brothers and the people of the town of Greccio gather in the cave on Christmas Eve, lighting up the night with torches, singing hymns, with a priest celebrating Mass on an altar arranged over the manger. Francis himself, ‘dressed as a Levite’, sang the gospel ‘in a beautiful voice,’ and preached, full of emotion. Thomas tells us that it seemed as if the infant Jesus, long forgotten in the hearts of people, came to life that night. And all of creation, the trees and stones of the surrounding mountainside, echoed the praises sung by the people.

This simple kind of nativity scene was destined to be spread by Franciscans throughout the world as they moved out from Assisi in the following centuries. It is by now a familiar feature of Christmas celebrations throughout the world. Though it has suffered its share of commercialization, and its significance has sometimes become purely sentimental, at its origins the nativity scene was a striking affirmation of God’s entry into the mundane, everyday life of poor people, the world of creatures, the world of straw and rocks.




Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of Zorba the Greek, once told this parable:

A man came up to Jesus and complained to him about the hiddenness of God. “Rabbi,” he said, “I am an old man. During my whole life, I have always kept the commandments. Every year of my adult life, I went to Jerusalem and offered the prescribed sacrifices.

“Every night of my life, I have not retired to my bed without first saying my prayers. But . . . I look at stars and sometimes the mountains—and wait, wait for God to come so that I might see him. I have waited for years and years, but in vain. Why, Why? Mine is a great grievance, Rabbi? Why doesn’t God show himself?

Jesus, in response, smiled gently and said: “Once upon a time there was a marble throne at the eastern gate of a great city. On this throne sat 3,000 kings. All of them called upon God to appear so that they might see him, but all of them went to their graves with their wishes unfulfilled.

“Then, when these kings had died, a pauper, barefooted and hungry, came and sat upon that throne. ‘God,’ he whispered, ‘the eyes of a human being cannot look directly at the sun, for they would be blinded. How then, Omnipotent, can they look directly at you?

“Have pity, Lord, temper your strength, turn down your splendor so that I, who am poor and afflicted, may see you! “Then—listen, old man—God became a piece of bread, a cup of cool water, a warm tunic, a hut and, in the front of the hut, a woman giving suck to an infant.

“Thank you, Lord,’ he whispered. ‘You humbled yourself for my sake. You became bread, water, a warm tunic and my wife and son in order that I might see you. And I did see you. I bow down and worship your beloved many-faced face!’”

The God who is born at Christmas, the Christ of the incarnation, is more domestic than monastic. He was eventually crucified, as a poet once put it, for making God as accessible as the village well.

We celebrate many things at Christmas, not the least of which is how scandalously easy it now is to see God. Likewise, there are many challenges to the Christmas mystery, not the least of which is, precisely, to be able to see the many-faced face of God in a piece of bread, a cup of water, and in our own homes and families.

After the incarnation, every home is a monastery, every child is the Christ child, and all food and drink is a sacrament.

We struggle to believe this. For many reasons, each of us has the propensity to miss seeing God in the ordinary because we are forever searching for him in the extraordinary. We tend, nearly always, to miss the sacredness of the domestic as we look for the sacred in the monastic.

Too often we are unaware that the incarnation fundamentally changed us from being theists to being Christians, that is, from being people who believe in God to becoming people who believe in a god who was made flesh in Christ.

What’s the difference? Christmas is the difference and Kazantzakis’ parable sheds valuable light on what Christmas really means. To understand the parable of God’s many-faced face, is to understand what the very word “Christ” means.

The word “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name (like Jack Smith, Susan Dolenski or Jesus Christ). Christ is a title, not a name. Literally, in Greek, it means: the anointed one. Jesus Christ=Jesus, the anointed one.

Part of the meaning of that however is that the anointed one is the one who is God-in-the-flesh, God-in-carnus. Christmas then means God-in-the-physical just as it also means that the-physical-contains-God.

Kazantzakis puts it well. In the incarnation, in the mystery of Christmas, God does become a piece of bread, a cup of water, a warm tunic, a house, a spouse and a child. God’s many-faced face is everywhere.

We no longer need to look for God in extraordinary visions—a sunset will do. An incarnational God normally gives precisely that kind of vision! Likewise we don’t need to look for people with the stigmata to see the wounds of Christ—the pain in the faces of those we sit down at table with will do. God’s wounded body too is everywhere.

May the incarnation deeply bless our lives! May God’s many-faced face be present, sacramentally, in all of our Christmas celebrations—our food, our drink, our gifts, our family sharings. Likewise, may each of us struggle to give birth to God’s many-faced face so as to be more sacrament to those around us. God, we bow down and worship your beloved many-faced face.

Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.