Pope marks 800th anniversary of Nativity scene, asks prayers for Holy Land

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Away in a cave near Greccio, Italy, St. Francis of Assisi had the first Nativity scene – a live one – staged for the faithful on Christmas Eve in 1223.

A 15th-century fresco now decorating the cave inspired the Nativity scene erected in St. Peter’s Square for the 800th anniversary celebrations.

Before the scene was unveiled and the Christmas tree in the square was lighted Dec. 9, Pope Francis met with the more than 100 people involved in erecting the creche, officials from the Rieti Valley, which includes Greccio, and from the little town of Macra, in northern Italy, which donated the silver fir tree.

For St. Francis of Assisi, who had traveled to the Holy Land, “the caves of Greccio reminded him of the landscape of Bethlehem,” the pope said. The saint asked that a donkey and an ox, some hay and a manger be brought to the cave on Christmas Eve and invited other friars and people from the village, “creating a living Nativity scene. Thus, the tradition of the Nativity scene as we understand it was born.”

Remembering Greccio today, the pope said, people should also think of Bethlehem. “And as we contemplate Jesus – God made man, small, poor, defenseless – we cannot but think of the tragedy that the inhabitants of the Holy Land are living, expressing to those brothers and sisters of ours, especially the children and their parents, our closeness and our spiritual support. They are the ones who pay the true price of war.”

Whether the Nativity scene is in St. Peter’s Square, in a church or in one’s home, the pope said, people passing one should remember Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago and be moved to “silence and prayer in our often so hectic daily lives.”

“Silence to be able to listen to what Jesus tells us from the unique ‘cathedra’ of the manger,” he said. “Prayer to express grateful wonder, tenderness and perhaps the tears that the Nativity scene stirs in us.”

The Nativity scene is unveiled and the Christmas tree is lighted in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Dec. 9, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)