Greccio and the First Live Nativity: 800 Years of Tradition
By 1223, when the more famous story of Francis at Greccio took place, Francis was experiencing the weight of disappointment and frustration over the developing institutionalization of the brotherhood. Added to his emotional suffering was the significant physical pain caused by his chronic eye condition, known today as trachoma. Having treated his body with a fair amount of disdain in the name of penance, he arrived in Greccio physically weak and likely emotionally drained. He was making his way back to Assisi from a trip to Rome, where the Rule of 1223 was approved. His aspiration of a simple path to follow Jesus had become cluttered and complex within the order. He likely felt alone and isolated in this aspiration.
Isolation is, of course, different from solitude. While Francis had often sought solitude to be with Christ and to nurture his faith, this sense of isolation was potentially soul-crushing.
Is it any wonder, then, that in December 1223, as the late-autumn winds were growing cold, Francis arrived at his beloved Greccio, a place and a community that brought him hope by surrounding him in the love of faith?
Thomas of Celano’s account of the famous story at Greccio describes Francis’ inner state: “[Francis’] highest aim, foremost desire, and greatest intention was to pay heed to the holy Gospel in all things and through all things. . . . 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.”
A Living Nativity
Dedicated to retracing Christ’s footsteps, Francis considered creating a living Nativity to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. Without his good friend John—a man who knew how to get things done in the real world—Francis’ hope and aspiration to experience consolation in a faithful re-creation of the Incarnation likely would have remained a silent thought in the solitude of his cell. As a colleague of mine often remarks, “Francis couldn’t organize lint in his pocket.” Organizing a living Nativity was beyond Francis’ capability, but it was not beyond John’s.
Fifteen days before Christmas, Francis summoned John and told him he wanted to have a living Nativity scene, complete with animals, hay, a manger, and a baby. He wanted to see, touch, and smell all there was to sense in the baby’s own awkward place, lying in an animal’s food trough. Just as Francis himself was experiencing discomfort and anguish—both physical and emotional—he wanted to share in the experience of the baby Jesus. He knew that it would be through visceral engagement, using all his senses, that he would find solace, hope, and compassion. Although he usually sought solitude, he asked to experience this in community, and he asked his friend John to make it happen.
Celano offers little detail about the work John brought to this task. Celano tells us that when “the day of joy” had arrived, Francis found all things had been prepared: “The manger is prepared, the hay is carried in, and the ox and the ass are led to the spot. . . . Out of Greccio is made a new Bethlehem.”
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