And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)
On Christmas Eve 1223, the villagers of Greccio were invited to a service by Francis of Assisi. He had settled in the area with some of his followers, and had planned something for the locals. In fact, he had even written to the Pope to gain permission for what he had planned.
As the villagers climbed up the snaking paths, they came to one of the many caves which dotted the hills and discovered what Francis had planned. In the rough cavern was a donkey, and a man and women dressed up in costume. They stood around a manger, which contained a wax doll.
As they looked on, Francis chanted the Gospel passage recounting Jesus’ birth and then began to preach. He had been to Bethlehem, and told them of the events of that first Christmas. He urged them to place their faith in that baby, born a millennium before in Bethlehem.
As the villagers left, their torches bobbing as they weaved down the hill, Francis stayed at the cave through the night in prayer.
We have Francis to thank for the popularity of Christmas nativity scenes, but often his original purpose is lost. Rather than decoration, he wanted to bring the challenge of Christmas to life. When you pass a crib scene, perhaps you might pause and look at the figure in manger and ask yourself the question: what difference does it make to know that that infant is in fact divine?