In the year 1223 an ailing St. Francis of Assisi, retreated to a cave two miles distant from the town of Greccio perched on an oak-filled hillside above the Rieti Valley. Then shortly before Christmas, word spread through the mountain villages that Francis had agreed to preach the Christmas sermon at Greccio, and peasants throughout the hill country trekked miles along frozen trails to attend midnight Mass. Upon entering the candle-lit confines of the church, they were amazed to find a life-size image of the Christ child set in a manger filled with straw, flanked by a living, breathing ox and donkey. The depiction of the infant Jesus in the manger, arranged by St. Francis, was something never before seen.
Life in these remote areas bounded by the Apennine Mountains has always been grim. As recently as 1890, a guidebook warned travelers of the areas of the “miserably poor and ignorant …farmers” and “villages …wretched and dirty beyond description.” St. Francis, whose message was directed precisely to the least fortunate men and women of his day, struck a profound chord in the religious sensitivities of these “lower” classes in an age where life-spans were brutally short: the God-man, warmed by the breath of animals was as one of us. In a single stroke, the manger of St. Francis cut to the core of the Christian mystery with more impact than the words of any theologian or preacher.
St. Francis’ crèche also made a lasting impression on popular Italian culture. At Christmas, churches throughout Italy still feature elaborate manger scenes some with full size statues, others with living figures. With gifts normally not exchanged until Epiphany, twelve days later, the feast of Christ’s still retains its identity as a religious celebration. Even where commercialism sets in such as in Rome’s toy and candy market at the downtown Piazza Navona, the presence of bag-pipe playing shepherds, dressed in folk costumes of the mountain people, are reminders of Jesus’ birth. In Italy — thanks to St. Francis — the manger is the symbol of Christmas.
For contemporary Americans weighed down with frosty snowmen, beaming Santas, and piles of wrapped gifts, the Christ in Christmas is much harder to find. An event of awesome simplicity has become layered with distractions, and we are the poorer for this. The Christmas music filling our malls proclaims how “silently, yet silently the wondrous gift is given.” But appreciating what this all means becomes ever more difficult — almost as if we suffer from too much of Christmas.
How then are we to understand this sacred event? The German religious writer, Karl Rahner, tell us: “If in faith we say, ‘it is Christmas’ – in a faith that is determined, sober, and above all else courageous – then we mean that an event came bursting into the world and into our life… It is an event through which our night – the fearful, cold, bleak night where body and soul await death from exposure – has become Christmas, the holy night. For … the Son has become man, the eternal purpose of the world…has become flesh.”
The Christmas message is there for us to be heard, but we must pause to do so, recognizing that within our own frailty, we are all peasants trudging through the darkness and crackling snow in the stillness of the night. Knowingly or not, we are perpetual seekers of the manger, a place where amidst the deep breathing of the animals, and the dim glow of candles we are able to encounter the infant child, our Emmanuel, “the God who is with us” now and forever.
Larry Mullaly Nov. 29, 2006