Family, Christmas is and has always been a special time in our lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters who have preceded us, the Saints. Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi were great lovers of Christmas. Francis was actually the one who created the Christmas Creche, or Nativity Scene as we know it today. Although there are those in our world who would like to do away with the Nativity Scene, and anything that has to do with Christmas, we think it’s important to share with you two accounts that have to do with Christmas, from the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare.
Saint Clare is transported to Bethlehem
We find Clare at the end of her journey on earth, and she is too sick to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. It was the year 1252, and she would live just one more year before joining her Lord and Father Francis in Heaven. All her Sisters had gone to Mass and she was a prisoner of her sick bed. Too feeble to rise, she prayed! She shared with her Lord how sad she was that she would not be able to receive Him, in the Eucharist, on this of all nights, the night He was born.
A great, bright light broke through the darkness, illuminating the bare room. It was followed by the sweet smell of incense filling the air. Clare could hear Angelic voices intoning Christmas hymns. Suddenly she was lifted from her bed; and before she knew it, she was swooped over to the Basilica of Saint Francis, and was participating in the Midnight Mass.
If that was not enough, then Clare found herself being whisked off to Bethlehem of 1200 years before. She found herself in the cave where Jesus was born. There, surrounded by adoring farm animals and shepherds, was the Holy Infant. She looked lovingly toward the Baby Jesus in His straw Creche, His tiny plump little Arms were wide open, as if inviting her closer. Clare looked over to His kneeling parents – His gentle Mother Mary and the earthly foster father who cherished Him – Saint Joseph. Then Our Lord Jesus, the grown God-Man, appeared. He tenderly placed the Sacred Host, His very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity on her tongue.
With that she was transported back to her convent of San Damiano, to await her Sisters. When they returned, they shared with her how sad they were she was not able to attend Mass with them. Then she recounted her whole experience, how God in His Mercy would not allow her to miss Mass and most especially be deprived of receiving His Body, Blood, Soul and Divine Self, the Eucharist, on this of all nights. Needless to say, they fell asleep praising God, accompanied by the sweet sounds of Angels singing Gloria in Excelsis Deo.
When Clare had given up her comfortable, luxurious life to follow Father Francis, the world she lived in thought her mad. Being very beautiful, from a prestigious family, she’d had her pick of suitors. She didn’t even have the consolation of having Francis near her, to guide her in her walk toward Jesus. But after having heard Francis preach, she knew she belonged only to Jesus. She traded in a large private room, with a soft, comfortable mattress for the stone floor she slept on, and a mattress of straw, surrounded by her fellow Sisters. And what was her reward? Her Lord did not betray her trust in Him, nor His Love for her. All she had to do was be faithful, which she was till the day she died, and He did the rest, rewarding her with being present the evening He was born, and then, with His parents, to adore Him as a Baby. If that wasn’t enough, not wanting her to do without Him, He, the High Priest, appeared and shared His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity with her, in the Eucharist. Did He hear the silent prayers of her heart’s desire, and answered her? We believe, he not only answered her, He blessed her beyond her wildest dreams.
Saint Francis of Assisi and the First Nativity Scene
Many Saints have had a deep love and close relationship with the Holy Infant Jesus. There is not a Shrine that does not have and venerate an Image of the Child Jesus, along with our Lord Crucified on the Cross, the Two eternally interwoven.
Have you ever wondered where, when, and how the tradition of the Creche and Manger began? To find the answer to that question, we have to journey in faith to Assisi, Italy.
Let us travel back to the 12th Century, where we will find the Saint, who would most imitate the life of Jesus – Saint Francis of Assisi. Although coming from very comfortable surroundings, Francis began life in a barn, very like the one Jesus was born in. His mother, Madonna Pica, knew in her heart that her son was destined to serve the Lord, and she wanted him to be born like her Savior in the humblest of circumstances – a barn, like Jesus, with only the warmth of animals’ breath to keep him warm. Before Francis was born, she’d had a visit from a mysterious visitor (we believe it was a messenger of God, or in other words, an Angel), who instructed her to name him John. Madonna baptized her baby John, but when his father returned from France, he changed the baby’s name to Francis after France, the country he felt was most responsible for his wealth.
Father Francis spends Christmas in Greccio
Saint Francis always had a fascination with Christmas and the holy, mysterious Birth of his Savior. In 1223, he went, with his fellow friars, to Greccio, where he celebrated Christmas in a highly original, most unique manner for his time. He reproduced the original Nativity scene, placing a manger filled with hay in the middle of a rocky ravine at the convent in Greccio. Then he brought cattle and donkeys to stand beside it. He did this so that the Faithful could see the impoverished surroundings and the suffering the Lord endured as a New-born Child.
On Christmas Eve, friars, and men and women from the village and the surrounding valley, came, candles and torches in hand, lighting their way. They had heard of the Nativity scene Francis had created and they wanted to give glory to the Little King in the manger, singing songs and hymns to express their love. Francis was dressed as a Deacon, as he never felt worthy to become a Priest. (Whenever he approached a Priest, he would go down on his knees and kiss his hand, the hand that brought Jesus Present in the Holy Eucharist to him.) The Christmas Mass no sooner began, than it was time for Francis to preach the homily! He preached on the Birth of the Baby Jesus with so much passion, he could not call Christ Jesus; when he opened his mouth to say Jesus, instead what came out was, Jesus, Child of Bethlehem.
In addition, we have it on the word of a very pious man, who reported that when he looked into the crib, instead of a statue, he actually beheld a Baby lying still, as if dead. Then he testified, he saw Saint Francis go over to the statue and lift the lifeless form. Whereupon, it came to life, rubbing its eyes as if being roused from a sound sleep. There, for all to see was Saint Francis, his arms cradling and rocking the Precious One Who was alive!
Why did the Father allow this to happen? Well, great apathy had been infiltrating the area, with people almost forgetting their Lord, and the real meaning of Christmas. Their hearts had become cold, filled with too much of the world below rather than the Heaven above. Francis, neither eloquent nor handsome, by bringing them miraculously the Child Jesus, ignited the almost dead spark that lay hidden in their souls.
The hay upon which the Child Jesus had lain, was saved. Animals suffering various illnesses, upon being touched by the hay were immediately healed. Women undergoing very painful and stressfully long labors delivered healthy babies, after having the hay placed on them. Men, women and children, suffering from various illnesses were healed. The people were so grateful, a church was later built over the spot where the manger lay and the animals kept watch. And till today, the faithful come and pray to the Infant Jesus to intercede with the Father, on their behalf, for a successful delivery, and a healthy, normal baby.