We live in such a creative society, that there is an infinite variety of nativities available now-a-days. You can find everything from intricately hand-carved wooden pieces to glow-in-the-dark sets, musical nativities to nativity finger puppets. Some make great heirlooms and some are great for kids. But of all natives ever made, I still think the best one is also the first one… the nativity made by St. Francis of Assisi.
In 1223, St. Francis decided that he wanted to have a real, live nativity for the people of Grecio, Italy. After receiving permission, St. Francis set to work, making a manger with hay, bringing an ox and donkey. Near midnight, the villagers came by candlelight and together they sang hymns of praise and adoration. St. Francis was “bathed in tears and radiant with joy”¹ as he chanted the gospel for Christmas mass and then preached a sermon on the “Babe of Bethlehem,”² as St. Francis called him.
What was it that had inspired St. Francis of Assisi to create this beautiful nativity scene? St. Francis said that he wanted to see how Jesus “was deprived of all the comforts babies enjoy; how He was bedded in the manger on hay, between an ass and an ox. For once I want to see all this with my own eyes.”³ St. Francis knew that God’s actions reveal His goodness. So by contemplating God’s actions (especially His birth), St. Francis knew he would better understand God… and the saint also knew that the better he understood God, the more he would love Him.
Since the time of St. Francis’ nativity scene, the tradition has steadily grown and spread, and it is now considered one of the most beloved Christmas customs. Although we’ve seen more creativity in nativity scenes than St. Francis of Assisi could have ever possibly imagined, the original purpose of the nativity remains. In whatever shape or form the nativity comes, we too, can imitate St. Francis… by choosing a nativity that helps us to know God better, so that we, like St. Francis, may love Him more.
1. St. Bonaventure. Life of St. Francis of Assisi. TAN Books. Rockford, IL, 1988, p. 88.
3. www.strobertbellarmine.net/books/Weiser–ChristianFeastsandCustoms.pdf Weiser, Francis. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. Harcourt Brace and Co., Inc. New York, 1952, p. 94-95