Christmas was such a special feast for Saint Francis because it reveals so vividly the deepest mystery of God: that our God totally empties self in the person of Jesus to share our frail humanity.
That was the Jesus whose teaching and footsteps Francis wished to follow. As his first biographer, Thomas of Celano, recalls, “Indeed, so thoroughly did the humility of the Incarnation and the charity of the Passion occupy his memory that he scarcely wanted to think of anything else.”
Francis shared his wonder at the “humility of the incarnation” that we celebrate at Christmas in his Letter to All the Faithful: “The Word of the Father—so worthy, so holy and glorious—came down into the womb of the Virgin Mary, from which he received the flesh of our humanity and our frailty. Though he was rich beyond all other things, in this world he, together with the most blessed Virgin, his mother, willed to choose poverty.”
Francis wanted ordinary people to appreciate the dramatic reality of God’s self-emptying, and so in 1223 at Greccio he recreated the first Nativity scene: “to bring to life the memory of that babe born in Bethlehem, to see as much as possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he was laid upon a bed of hay.” Hear Murray Bodo, OFM, tell the story of Francis at Greccio.
The One who is so great and rich became for us small and wanting: he chose to be born not in a house but in a stable, to be wrapped in swaddling clothes, to be nourished by virginal milk, to lie in a manger between an ox and an ass. It was then that “there shone upon us a day of new redemption, restoration of the past, and happiness forever”. . . . So now, my soul, embrace that sacred manger; press your lips upon the child’s feet in a devout kiss: then in your mind keep the shepherds’ watch; marvel at the assembling host of angels; join in the heavenly melody, singing with your voice and heart: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.” (“Tree of Life,” 1.4)
That is where God is, in littleness. This is the message: God does not rise up in grandeur, but lowers himself into littleness. Littleness is the path that he chose to draw near to us, to touch our hearts, to save us and to bring us back to what really matters. (Christmas, 2021).
Main image: This image of the Nativity is from the lower basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. It dates from c. 1320 and is attributed to Giotto di Bondone or his workshop. Read the nice appreciation of this fresco published a year ago by Fr. Warner D’Souza.
Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor.