When asked to provide something for a clergy gathering on Christmas themes held at a rural Franciscan retreat center, I recalled the story of Francis’ recreation of Jesus’ nativity. I also composed a hymn based on the event, “Come Spirit, Occupy the Earth” (below article).
As his time on earth drew to a close, Francis of Assisi doubtless sensed he would not have the chance to return to the “Holy Land” (located in today’s “Middle East”). He had been there once before, in an effort to convert Muslims to Christianity or, failing that, to die trying as a witness (“martyr”) to his faith. Having failed at either attempt, he ended up having one of the first recorded interfaith dialogues, as the Sultan he met instead treated him with respect and escorted him safely across military boundaries in order to speak with him. But that is a story for another season. For Christmas is at hand…
Beautiful as the Umbrian hill country was, poverty was one of the chief afflictions of those who lived beyond the walled city of Assisi, which claimed Francis primarily before his conversion and after his death: in other words, after the lepers he served early on (and called his brothers to return serving late) were no longer so much part of the picture.
So it seemed unlikely that he expected many of those surrounding him in his last years of illness would be to afford a trip to the Holy Land. In the hinterland of the Italian countryside few had the wealth needed or time available to make such a journey, at least apart from those in the military, which Francis himself had participated in prior to his conversion.
How then, removed from grand cathedrals, majestic music or arming countrymen for crusades, could he convey something of Christ’s advent to the poor, lowly and needy where he was? The stage was thus set for the first “Christmas Pageant” to be born, as Francis sought to depict the birth of Christ for “simple” folk, “unlettered,” as he called himself.
Calling a friend named (appropriately enough for the herald of Christ) John, “who had a good reputation but an even better manner of life,” Francis asked him to prepare a place for people to encounter at Christmas not a royal habitation for a king come to rule earth, but rather a mat of hay on which to lay an infant to be born into the bracing cold the people themselves knew in their bones.
“The night is lit up like day,” Francis’ earliest biographer tells us, painting a picture of something akin to our own Christmas Eve, when “the forest amplifies the cries [of people singing], and the boulders echo back the joyful crowd” as they cross through the rural countryside. On their arrival they discover a wooden manger where “simplicity is given a place of honor, poverty is exalted, humility is commended, and out of Greccio is made a new Bethlehem.”
Located at the end of the major portion of his life story as told by his earliest biographer, the nativity of Francis raises for an adult (not children’s!) audience the question of whether there is room in their lives for Christ to be born. As a subsequent liturgist put it, “He who was asleep or dead in the hearts of many, owing to forgetfulness, was awakened and recalled to memory by the teaching and example of Blessed Francis.”
We might ask equivalently today whether, out of hearts which may have forgotten the gift of God’s grace where we ourselves live, a new holy land for Christ to be welcomed may be made in our own lives. One in which he can continue to “multiply his holy mercy” for the healing of those in the world around us.
“Come Spirit, Occupy the Earth” is a new hymn that tells the story of Francis’ manger scene.
Peace and good,
Rev. William B. Jones