Greccio Experience: This image is just one example of the many opportunities throughout the ministries of our provinces, to celebrate the Living Nativity, as it was instituted by St. Francis of Assisi. Please check our “LOCATIONS” page to find a ministry near you.
The concept of a Nativity was not new to St. Francis, as the faithful enjoyed celebrations acting as shepherds and angels singing songs of praise & some churches had fantastical reproductions and representations of the glory of the nativity scene. What was so new and exciting about the portrayal created by St. Francis at Greccio, in the 1200s was the inclusion of living animals with hay; a humble portrayal of Jesus’ birth in a stable and the realism of the poverty of Jesus. He was also granted permission from Pope Honorius III (who had just granted approval for the final form of the Franciscan Rule) to hold this event outside, in a cave, instead of in a church, as had been the tradition. The manger of Greccio was not an “art piece” but a simple symbol used for religious contemplation on the mystery of the poverty and suffering of Jesus. This depiction touched the hearts and souls of the people on hand, like no gilded rendition could. The devotion to the Baby Jesus and this version of a Christmas Nativity Scene grew throughout Europe after these events of Greccio. One of the first sculptures in the visual format of an impoverished Christ Child, was commissioned in the late 1200s by the first Franciscan Pope, Nicholas IV (who approved the Third Order Rule instituted by St. Francis). It was created by Arnolfo di Cambio and erected in the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary Major, where it still stands.
Pax et Bonum: Human history is filled with individual, community and national quests for peace which at times results in voluntary or forced relocation. According to tradition, the area of Greccio (Italy) was first established by exiled citizens of a Greek community who fled their home country because of war. Mount Lacerone’s terrain seemed like a protected area for those peace searching settlers and they named the small town – Greccio. Eventually the town included a fortified medieval castle with external walls and towers. Before the decedents of those who had sacrificed their Greek homes to escape war, struggled through local wars culminating in the town’s 1799 destruction by Napoleon’s Army, this beautiful area enjoyed times of great peace. On Christmas Eve 1223, in the small town of Greccio, St. Francis of Assisi first displayed a Living Nativity using a natural cave, now known as the Chapel of Presepio. St. Francis had been searching for and had found some much needed peace in Greccio. He found there a peaceful option for pilgrims to celebrate the birth of Our Lord, instead of the treacherous trip to the Holy Land that at the time was under control of the Turks. He had first visited the Castello di Greccio village in 1217, where his preaching converted the citizens and a permanent quarters was built for St. Francis and his Companions nearby. St. Francis was reluctant to have his followers so close to the distractions of village life, but he agreed to the quarters, as long as they would be built a stone’s throw away from the village. A small boy was asked to throw a lit torch and wherever it landed, the quarters would be built. Shockingly the torch landed over a mile away, where hallowed out caves in a rocky hill became their dwelling.
The Living Nativity: St. Francis had a deep desire to use every personal act to portray the Gospel and the teachings of Christ, by example. This was done through not just his own personal prayer or teachings but through external signs, as well. One such sign celebrated the Birthday of Our Lord Jesus Christ, a few years before his own death. Included in the 84-87 excerpt from “The First Life of St. Francis” – Thomas of Celano, about 15 days prior to Christmas, St. Francis asked of his friend Giovanni, “If you will that we celebrate the present festival of the Lord at Greccio, make haste to go before and diligently prepare what I tell you. For I would make memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, and in some sort behold with bodily eyes His infant hardships; how He lay in a manger on the hay, with the ox and the ass standing by.” Giovanni did as he was asked and the faithful from near and far gathered to witness when St. Francis had desired to be portrayed. Continuing to read from the excerpt we see that “There Simplicity was honored, Poverty exalted, Humility commended; and of Greccio there was made as it were a new Bethlehem. The night was lit up as the day, and was delightful to men and beasts. The people came, and at the new Mystery rejoiced with new rejoicing. The woodland rang with voices, the rocks made answer to the jubilant throng. The brethren sang, yielding due praises to the Lord, and all that night resounded with jubilation” St. Francis stood before the manger and was overcome with joy. The group enjoyed Mass together and St. Francis, serving as a Deacon for he was not ordained as a priest, chanted the Holy Gospel and preached to the people “mellifluous words concerning the birth of the poor King and the little town of Bethlehem. (And often, when he would name Christ Jesus, aglow with exceeding love he would call Him the Child of Bethlehem, and, uttering the word “Bethlehem” in the manner of a sheep bleating, he filled his mouth with the sound, but even more his whole self with the sweet affection. Moreover, in naming “the Child of Bethlehem” or “Jesus” he would, as it were, lick his lips, relishing with happy palate, and swallowing the sweetness of that word.) There the gifts of the Almighty were multiplied, and a vision of wondrous efficacy was seen by a certain man; for in the manger he saw a little child lying lifeless, to whom the Saint of God seemed to draw near and (as it were) to rouse the child from the lethargy of sleep. Nor was this vision incongruous; for the child Jesus had been given over to forgetfulness in the hearts of many in whom, by the working of His Grace, He was raised up again through His servant Francis and imprinted on a diligent memory.” After the celebration, the hay that was placed in the manger was fed to the animals, and miraculously many were cured from sickness. The hay was attributed to giving aid to women in childbirth, and health many others who were suffering. The place where the Mass and Living Nativity took place was revered by many and over the spot, a church was dedicated “that where beasts had once eaten fodder of hay, men might thenceforth for the healing of soul and body eat the flesh of the spotless and undefiled Lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who in highest and unspeakable charity gave Himself for us, Who liveth and reigneth with the Father and the Holy Ghost, God eternally glorious, world without end. Amen, Alleluia, Alleluia.”
Today’s pilgrims to Greccio can visit the Nativity Chapel, enjoy an exhibit of model crèches, from all over the world, as well as the opportunity to see how St. Francis and his followers lived, prayed, rested and celebrated. The friars of our province enjoy bringing Greccio to you. So please join us for one of our early December celebrations.