The Real Story of St. Francis and the Nativity Scene

My latest saint post for Tau Cross Books and Media. I had intended to continue writing this month about San Francesco a Ripa in Rome and Lady Jacoba dei Settesoli, but decided this article would be more appropriate for the Christmas season. A very Merry and blessed Christmas to everyone!

As Christmas approaches, Franciscans everywhere are recalling the famous scene at Greccio in 1223, when St. Francis prepared a memorable re-enactment of the birth of Jesus on Christmas eve with a manger, ox and ass. The event is commemorated at the chapel at Greccio, where Pope Francis stopped to pray on January 4, 2016.

Pope Francis prays in the chapel at Greccio. The stone under the altar is the one on which St. Francis placed the manger.

This is always spoken of as the beginning of the practice of the Christmas Nativity scene – though perhaps it is best to see it as one stage in the long development of this practice. In fact, a great deal of this history is not widely known. I propose to examine it here, because when we look at both the continuum of history, and what was happening in St. Francis’ time, we can understand a bit better what led him to present the scene as he did, and how people at the time saw it.

I will begin with this question: What did Francis himself experience in regard to the celebration of Jesus’ birth and the representation of the scene before 1223?

Historians have suggested some possible influences on St. Francis. One is the pilgrimage he is believed to have made to the Holy Places during his stay in the Middle East in 1219-1220. He had gone there in hopes of preaching to the Muslims, and when he was with the crusade army in Damietta, he was able to speak to the Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamil. Though Francis did not succeed in converting the Sultan, according to some early sources, al-Kamil did give him a precious gift.

Like many Christians, he longed to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the goal of so many pilgrims. But the poverty that he and his friars were sworn to would have forbidden it, because from the time the Muslims had captured Jerusalem in 1187, they had demanded tribute money from Christian pilgrims to visit the holy places. On top of that, Pope Honorius III had forbidden the payment of this tribute, considering it an outrage for Christians to contribute to the coffers of the infidels at a time when the whole Christian world was at war with them.[1] Brother Angelo of Clareno, who knew some of Francis’ companions, said in his Chronicle that the sultan “ordered that he and all his brothers could freely go to the Sepulcher and without paying the tribute” and that Francis, before returning home, “visited the Holy Sepulcher.”[2]

But when he got there, he would have found almost nothing left in a war-ravaged Jerusalem. Malik al-Kamil’s brother Al-Mu'azzam, the ruler of Syria, in retaliation for the Crusader attacks, had razed Jerusalem almost to the ground. The walls of the city were destroyed, and Christian sites in the city were in rubble. The people thought Judgment day had really come, and had fled the city. The only Christian site left standing was the Holy Sepulcher itself.[3]

The nearby town of Bethlehem had also suffered destruction from the war, but the Church of the Nativity was still intact. The Crusaders had carried out restorations, and added a great deal of sumptuous decoration to the already existing basilica, including gorgeous mosaics and paintings in the upper church and the Grotto of the Nativity. Little of the poverty of the original cave was still visible in the grotto where Jesus was born. This is the scene, of combined desolation and magnificence, in which Francis would have meditated on the Savior’s birth in poverty. Was the experience an inspiration to him, or a disappointment?

Another influence on St. Francis mentioned by some historians is the already existing popularity of liturgical dramas inside churches in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, most importantly, the Officium pastorum (The Office of the Shepherds), performed at Christmas Matins, especially in monastic churches, in which there was a sung dialogue between the angels and the shepherds, and the shepherds and the midwives at the stable. The climax was the drawing of a curtain revealing Mary and the Child in the manger. Some manuscripts mention the imago or image of Mary; probably both Mary and Jesus were represented by statues or figurines. But while these dramas were widespread north of the Alps in France and Germany, there is little evidence that they were performed in Italy in Francis’ time. [4] It does not seem that Francis was aware of plays about the birth of Jesus, although Assisi there were in fact, other liturgical dramas in which, as Fortini has shown, Francis may have taken part, even being leader of the company. These included the story of Assisi’s patron saint, the bishop and martyr St. Victorinus.[5] All his life Francis had a sense of the dramatic, which he often used in bringing the Gospel to people. This could also have contributed to his ability to present the scene of the nativity at Greccio.

Still another possible influence is the liturgical practices of Christmas at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) in Rome. The original basilica was founded by Pope Liberius around 360, but it was completely rebuilt under Sixtus III in 432. He dedicated the basilica to Mary the Mother of God, in honor of the recent definition of this doctrine at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The original series of mosaics telling the story of Christ’s birth have been preserved. From at least the sixth century, and possibly earlier, the church was called Santa Maria ad praesepe, or “at the manger.”[6]

Numerous sources from the eighth century onward refer to the oratorio or chapel with crypt built into a part of the church, which seems to have been intended as a replica of the grotto at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which was also reached by going into the lower part of the church. This Roman grotto contained relics of the sycamore wood of the actual manger in which the infant Jesus lay, which had been brought from Bethlehem.[7]

It is hard to know what this praesepe looked like in Francis’ time, because the interior of the church has changed so much, but medieval sources speak of the praesepe having double doors covered with pure silver with a white veil in front, and a silver lamp hanging above, and inside, curtains and tapestries of purple, and walls with “silver and gold panels with the history of holy Mary.” In the center, most likely in the crypt, was an image of the Mother of God embracing the infant Savior, adorned with gold and precious stones.

At the time of St. Francis, the Pope would celebrate Mass on the first Sunday of Advent, and the midnight Mass of Christmas in this chapel. Francis made a number of trips to Rome, and would very likely have been familiar with this church. In fact, he seems to have been in Rome at the end of November and beginning of December 1223, as the final form of the Franciscan Rule was approved by Pope Honorius III on November 30.[8] So he could have been present at the Pope’s Mass “at the manger” on the first Sunday of Advent.

It must have been at this very time that he began planning the representation of the manger at Greccio. In fact, Bonaventure says that Francis asked Pope Honorius III (no doubt while he was still in Rome) for permission to present the scene, “so that this would not be considered a type of novelty.”[9] As we have already seen, it was not exactly a novelty to have a representation of the manger in Bethlehem. So what was new about it? Let’s look at the scene as Francis wanted to have it. He planned it together with his friend, Giovanni, a knight of Greccio:

About 15 days before the Nativity of the Lord, Francis sent for [his friend Giovanni] . . . and said to him, “If you want us to celebrate the coming feast of Our Lord in Greccio, go, make haste, and prepare everything as I tell you. For I want to make a memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem and in some way behold with my bodily eyes His infant hardships; how He lay in a manger, placed on the hay, with the ox and ass standing by.” . . . The brethren were summoned from many places, the men and women of that town with exulting hearts prepared tapers and torches, as they were able, to illuminate that night which with its radiant star has illuminated all the days and years. . . the manger had been made ready, the hay was brought, the ox and ass were led in. There simplicity was honored, poverty exalted, humility commended; and Greccio became, as it were, a new Bethlehem. The night became as bright as day, and humans and animals delighted. The people came, and lent new joy to the new mystery. The forest rang with voices and the rocks responded to their jubilation.[10]

As the text makes clear, the event took place not in a church, but outdoors, in a grove on the hilltop. (Thomas tells us that a church was built on the spot only later). This celebration of a Mass outdoors may have been the innovation for which St. Francis sought permission.[11] In addition, we are told:

A solemn Mass was celebrated over the manger. . . The saint of God wore the vestments of a levite, for a levite [i.e. deacon] he was; he sang the holy Gospel in a sonorous voice . . . then he preached to the people standing around and spoke mellifluous words about the birth of the poor King and the little town of Bethlehem.
It is especially striking that no human figures, live or sculpted ones, not even the infant Jesus, are mentioned in these sources. This leaves a strong impression that the celebration of Mass over the manger was suggested to Francis by the celebration of Mass in the presence of the relics of the manger at Santa Maria Maggiore. It is even possible that in Greccio the manger itself was used as the altar.[12]

The most important difference between this and earlier representations was that Francis brought a new realism to the representation of the poverty of the infant Jesus. The center of attention was the representation of the baby Jesus not surrounded by gold, precious stones and magnificent mosaics, as in the great churches in Bethlehem and Rome, but on the hay between the farm animals. The manger here was not an object of dramatic or artistic interest, but an object of religious contemplation; the mystery was the mystery of poverty and suffering that Jesus endured even as a child. It touched hearts as nothing ever had. Bonaventure says:

[The knight Giovanni] claimed that he saw a beautiful little boy asleep in the crib and that the blessed father Francis embraced it in both of his arms and seemed to wake it from sleep. For Francis's example when considered by the world is capable of arousing the hearts of those who are sluggish in the faith of Christ.[13]
Though the idea of the poverty of the Baby Jesus was not completely new, no one brought it home as St. Francis did.

The 1298 Nativity scene in Sta Maria Maggiore

From this time on, devotion to the Baby Jesus and the Christmas Nativity scene became popular all over Europe. One of the first such scenes, consisting of sculptures by Arnolfo di Cambio, was commissioned around 1298 at the orders of the first Franciscan Pope, Nicholas IV (who also approved the Third Order Rule). It was erected in none other than the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and is still there (right).

Every one of us has a Nativity scene in our homes, but how often do we really think about them? Let’s turn to the Nativity scene this Christmas with the same spirit St. Francis did, and awaken our hearts to what Jesus did for us.

NOTES

[1] Giulio Bassetti-Sani, “San Francesco è incorso nella scomunica? Una bolla di Onorio III e il supposto pellegrinaggio del Santo a Gerusalemme.” Archivum Franciscan Historicum 65 (1972): 3-19. The author thinks that because of the prohibition, Francis could not have gone to Christ’s tomb, but the details Clareno gives seem to be based on a verified report. At any rate, the fact that Francis was not charged tribute seems to have made the prohibition a moot point.

[2] Angelo entered the order quite young, around 1260, and finished his Chronicle of Seven Tribulations of the Order in 1325; the Latin text is in Girolamo Golubovich, Biblioteca bio-bibliografica della Terra Santa e dell'Oriente francescano (Quaracchi: Collegio di s. Bonaventura, 1906), pp. 55-56 (translation mine). See also the account in the Little Flowers of St. Francis, Ch. 23.

[3] See cf. Oliver of Paderborn, “Historia Damiatina,” 41; also Arnaldo Fortini, St. Francis of Assisi (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p. 535.

[4] Karl Young: “Officium Pastorum: A Study of the Dramatic Developments within the Liturgy of Christmas,” Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters (1912): 299-396.

[5] Fortini, Francis of Assisi, pp. 131-32.

[6] Since praesepe in Latin means both “manger” and “stable,” it could also be called “at the stable.” In this sense the chapel could be said to represent the stable in Bethlehem.

[7] Hartmann Grisar, “Anche basiliche di Roma imitanti i santuari di Gerusalemme et Betlemme,” in his Analecta Romana (Rome, 1899), pp. 577-594. It is not certain when the relics actually came to the church. The first documented references to their presence in the basilica date from the late eleventh century. Many have thought that they were brought to Italy by refugees from the Muslim conquest of Palestine around 642. The altar in the present chapel still has some stones in a reliquary, which Grisar thought may have been brought from the basilica in Bethlehem soon after the construction of the church.

[8] See Fortini, Francis of Assisi, pp. 524-25.

[9] St. Bonaventure, Vita Maj. 10:7; translation by Ewert Cousins, Bonaventure, The Soul's Journey into God, The Tree of Life, The Life of St. Francis (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 278.

[10] Thomas of Celano, Vita prima, 10, nos. 84-85 (translation mine).

[11] The seventeenth-century edition of Bonaventure edited by the Bollandists read “levity” instead of “novelty” here, which led L. Gougaud to suppose that Francis sought the Pope’s permission to avoid Innocent III’s condemnation of the frivolous excesses of some “theatrical plays” in churches: “La crèche de Noël avant St- François d'Assise.” Revue des Sciences Religieuses, 2:1 (1922): 26-34. But the editors of the Quaracchi edition seem to have determined that the best reading from the manuscripts is “novelty.”

[12] Cf. Young, “Officium Pastorum,” p. 342. He observes that the Nativity plays and other medieval sources frequently saw the body of Christ on the altar as symbolic of the infant Jesus in the manger.

[13] Bonaventure, loc. cit.

The Passing of St. Francis

I have often attended the Transitus (pasing) of St. Francis, which is a special ceremony for Franciscans that takes place on the evening of October 3, at the time St. Francis died. I've always wanted to take part in the ceremony in Assisi, but so far have been unable to do so. I just ran across this short video with scenes from the Transitus as it unfolded in 2014 in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi, with the Porziuncula chapel, where Francis died, inside. I even caught a glimpse of the Minister General of the Secular Franciscans, Encarnacion del Pozo, near the beginning, in the pink suit. I really enjoyed this. So here it is. A blessed feast of St. Francis to everyone.