Thanks to St. Francis, 800-year tradition of nativity scene born

By Ruth Powers

This year marks a very special anniversary. At Christmas of 1223, eight hundred years ago, the tradition of the free-standing nativity scene was born in the little hillside town of Greccio, Italy, thanks to St. Francis of Assisi.

Ruth Powers

Francis came to Greccio that year with the idea of celebrating Christmas in an entirely new way: Midnight Mass in a cave with a manger filled with hay, a real ox and donkey, and the townspeople gathered around. Francis wished to celebrate the love Jesus has for us by becoming one of us, and his humility in choosing to be born as a helpless baby, just as we are. He hoped the townspeople would see the themselves as part of the Christmas story.

A wealthy supporter of Francis and the Friars agreed to let him use a cave about a mile above the town and placed a manger and the animals in it. An altar was constructed above the manger for the Mass. Thomas of Celano, Francis’ biographer, gives this description of Christmas Eve as the townspeople carrying torches and lanterns approach the cave:

“The night is lit up like day, delighting both man and beast. The people arrive, ecstatic at this new mystery of new joy. The forest amplifies the cries and the boulders echo back the joyful crowd. The brothers sing, giving God due praise, and the whole night abounds with jubilation. The holy man of God stands before the manger, filled with heartfelt sighs, contrite in his piety, and overcome with wondrous joy. Over the manger the solemnities of the Mass are celebrated, and the priest enjoys a new consolation.”

Francis was a deacon, not a priest, so he did not celebrate the Mass himself but rather read the gospel and preached. One of the bystanders, a knight of Greccio named John of Velita, told of a vision of the infant Jesus in the manger as Francis preached. Once again, Thomas of Celano writes:

“The gifts of the Almighty are multiplied there and a virtuous man sees a wondrous vision. For the man saw a little child lying lifeless in the manger and he saw the holy man of God approach the child and waken him from a deep sleep. Nor is this vision unfitting, since in the hearts of many the child Jesus has been given over to oblivion. Now he is awakened and impressed on their loving memory by His own grace through His holy servant Francis. At length, the night’s solemnities draw to a close and everyone went home with joy.”

The people attending took away pieces of the hay. Soon there were reports of animals cured of various illnesses when they ate the hay. In addition, many sick people were cured when pieces of the hay were placed on or near them. A small chapel was built on the site of the cave, which has expanded over the centuries into a large sanctuary with an attached Franciscan Friary.

For Francis, the Incarnation at Christmas was inextricably tied to the Passion, as both were the signs of God’s outpouring of love for his creations. In Jesus, God reveals his willingness to empty himself (Philippians 2:5-11) in order to take on our humanity and all that entails, even including suffering and death. Through the grace of the Incarnation, God shows us how precious our humanity is. He delights in us so much that he chose to become one of us so that we might be drawn to Him. As we contemplate the nativity scenes set up in our homes and churches during this season, let us also consider the great love of God manifested in the tiny, helpless baby in the straw of the manger and remind ourselves of the command that Jesus gave us later on in His life to “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)