We would like to share one of Saint Clare’s experiences, which is recounted in the Fioretti, the Little Flowers of St. Clare. It is the foundation for the title she was given, Patron Saint of the Airwaves. It took place on Christmas Eve, 1252, the year before she died.
Clare was too ill to go to Midnight Mass services with her Sisters. She was too feeble to get out of bed. She lay there, her heart breaking as she was to be deprived of our Lord Jesus in the Eucharist on this special night. Her thoughts brought her back to the time in Greccio, when Francis made the first Nativity Scene, after which all Nativity scenes in the future would be fashioned. Christmas had always been a joyous time for both Clare and Francis. She missed not having him with her on earth, but especially at this, so important a time.
She looked about the bare room that served as the sleeping quarters for the Sisters. Suddenly, there was a great light in the room. She could hear the sounds of Christmas hymns being sung at the great Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. She felt herself being lifted out of her bed. The cool breeze of the December night brushed across her face; she was transported to the church amidst what sounded to her like the voices of angels. She could smell the sweet fragrance of burning candles, and altar incense. She was taking part in the Midnight Mass at the Basilica.
Then she was whisked off to the east, to the Bethlehem of 1200 years before. She was brought down to the cave where the Infant Jesus was born. St. Joseph and Mary were there, in the company of the animals whose cave the Holy Family shared. Our Lord Jesus came to her as a grown man, and placed the Sacred Host in her mouth.
Then she was transported back to the convent of San Damiano in Assisi. When her daughters in Christ came back upstairs from the Church, their joy was overshadowed by the great sorrow they felt because their Mother had missed the beautiful service. She smiled weakly. Her face was flushed, but not from the illness. She told them of her experience, and how the Lord Himself had given her Communion. They sat by her bed listening and smiling. As they all fell off into a peaceful Christmas slumber, the soft, distant sound of angels singing Gloria in Excelsis Deo could be heard.
Francis, so like Jesus, acknowledged to be more like Jesus than any man before or since, never wanted to be deemed equal with Jesus. Forgive us. St. Francis when we out of loyalty to the Holy Spirit, we share the ways you so closely resemble our Beloved Lord and Savior.
When his mother was stil pregnant with Francis, there is a tradition that an Angel of the Lord appeared to her and told her to go to a cattle-stall to give birth to her child. This barn was turned into a little church by St. Francis’ nephew, Piccardo in the second half of the 13th century. At the beginning of the 14th century, an inscription was carved on a portal outside of the church reading, “This Oratory, once a cattle-stall,, was the birthplace of Francis, mirror of the world. His holy and pious mother, like Jesus’ Perfect Mother said “yes” and this little baby born of wealthy parents was destined to follow in the footsteps of the Master, Who, born of the Highest Estate, chose not to have a place to lay His Head.
Although Francis was born of wealth and groomed to the life of making money and spending it, when the Lord took over, Francis gladly gave it all up to embrace a life of poverty. There are many stories that we can and will tell in subsequent issues, but the one I would like to share here is the story of the first Christmas creche as we know it today.
St. Francis spent much of his life meditating on the great love the Father has for us that He would bring about Incarnation and would allow Crucifixion all for the sake of our souls. He had an urgency to, in some way, graphically show how, many things we take for granted, our Lord and His Mother had to do without the day He was born.
Three years before St. Francis died, he felt called to celebrate the memory of the birth of the Child Jesus in a highly solemn manner. Always obedient to the Holy See, he first asked the Pope’s permission to celebrate Solemn Mass in this way in Greccio. Being humble, he also did not want to bring attention to himself, that he was doing something new and innovative. He was granted permission and proceeded to Greccio. Francis prepared a crib and placed hay into the manger. He placed an ox and an ass at either side of the manger. When all was in readiness, his friars filed in to pay homage to the Babe that was to be born. They were soon followed by crowds of townspeople carrying candles and torches. The woods became as bright and glowing as the grandest of Cathedrals The rejoicing and singing echoed throughout the forest. To us a Savior is born! Rejoice!
St. Francis dressed as a deacon, sang the Gospel and then preached on the poor King born in a stable in Bethlehem. And Greccio became Bethlehem! (Author’s note: Never feeling worthy, Francis never became a priest, but was a deacon. He had such respect and reverence for the priesthood, he would run up to each priest he saw and kiss his “consecrated hands.”) As he spoke of the Little Babe of Bethlehem his voice became soft and so full of love you could hear the tears he was struggling to contain.
There was a knight present called John who came from Greccio. He was known for his piety and holiness. He had given up the world and its goods to pursue Christ in the fashion of the “poor one.” He attested to seeing the following: He saw a lifeless baby lying in the manger. He said Francis went up to the Baby and took It into his arms and the Baby appeared to awaken from a deep sleep. This vision was prophetic in that the Baby Jesus had long been forgotten in the hearts and minds of the people and this night the poor one, their Francis had through this celebration brought the Lord to life again for them. The light from the candles and torches were carried from this holy spot to the homes of the townspeople and the Babe alon with them. The Light did not leave the manger but flowed out from it.
A church was built over the spot where the manger stood and an altar erected where Mass could be celebrated to this day and I am sure is each Christmas in the little town of Greccio, Bethlehem in Italy.