It is a known fact that Saint Francis of Assisi loved Christmas more than any other feasts. Much of what he himself wrote and what has been written about him aptly shows his great love for Christmas; as he called it, the “Feast of Feasts.”
As a Franciscan, I am deeply moved when I read chapter 30 of the First Life of Thomas of Celano which speaks about the manger that Francis had made on Christmas day at Greccio in 1223.
The Saint of God was vested with Levitical ornaments, for he was a Levite, and with sonorous voice chanted the holy Gospel–an earnest, sweet, clear and loud-sounding voice; inviting all to the highest rewards. Then he preached to the people who stood around, and uttered mellifluous words concerning the birth of the poor King and the little town of Bethlehem. (And often, when he would name Christ Jesus, aglow with exceeding love he would call Him the Child of Bethlehem, and, uttering the word “Bethlehem” in the manner of a sheep bleating, he filled his mouth with the sound, but even more his whole self with the sweet affection. Moreover, in naming “the Child of Bethlehem” or “Jesus” he would, as it were, lick his lips, relishing with happy palate, and swallowing the sweetness of that word.) There the gifts of the Almighty were multiplied, and a vision of wondrous efficacy was seen by a certain man; for in the manger he saw a little child lying lifeless, to whom the Saint of God seemed to draw near and (as it were) to rouse the child from the lethargy of sleep. Nor was this vision incongruous; for the child Jesus had been given over to forgetfulness in the hearts of many in whom, by the working of His Grace, He was raised up again through His servant Francis and imprinted on a diligent memory (1 Cel 30:86).
Singing and preaching were the outward manifestations of a heart that was full with love for Jesus. But why was Francis so enamored with the mystery of the Incarnation? He gives us the reason in his Regula Non Bullata, precisely in chapter 23, when he writes: We thank You for as through Your Son You created us, so through Your holy love with which you loved us, You brought about His birth as true God and true man by the glorious, ever-virgin, most blessed, holy Mary.
In his Letter to all the faithful Saint Francis reminds us: This Word of the Father, so worthy, so holy and glorious, whose coming the most High Father announced from heaven by His holy archangel Gabriel to the holy and glorious Virgin Mary in whose womb He received the true flesh of our humanity and frailty, He, being rich above all, willed, nevertheless, with His most Blessed Mother, to choose poverty.
Christ’s incarnation is consolidated and given its final “flesh and blood” in the sacrament of the Eucharist, the most august sacrament. In fact, in his First Admonition, Francis not only affirms the reality of the physical flesh of Jesus, born from the womb of the Virgin Mary, but also accentuates the reality of the eucharistic flesh of Jesus that is offered up daily on the altar much on the same lines as his first birth in Bethlehem.
From this beautiful and most powerful short spiritual exhortation Francis arrives to a point where he links the Eucharist with the manger. The two are closely interrelated because they both show God’s humility in becoming a human person, each at a fixed moment in time but in a different way. One is historic whereas the other is sacramental. However, the Eucharist, which is itself the continuation of the Incarnation, the Emmanuel, the “God with Us,” in person, is not just confined to a liturgical celebration. For Francis, the Incarnation goes far away from the altar of the Church to be enfleshed on the altar of the World, as present in the poor we have amongst us.
See, daily he humbles himself (cf. Phil. 2:8) as when he came from the royal throne (Wis. 18:15) into the womb of the Virgin; daily he comes to us in a humble form; daily he comes down from the bosom of the Father (cf. Jn. 1:18) upon the altar in the hands of the priest. And as he appeared to the holy apostles in true flesh, so now he reveals himself to us in the Sacred Bread. And as they saw only his flesh by means of their bodily sight, yet believed him to be God as they contemplated him with the eyes of faith, so, as we see bread and wine with [our] bodily eyes, we too are to see and firmly believe them to be his most holy body and blood living and true. And in this way the Lord is always with his faithful, as he himself says: Behold I am with you even to the end of the world (cf. Mt. 28:20) (Admonition 1:16-22).
In his third and final Advent Homily of December 20, 2013, entitled To prepare ourselves for Christmas in the company of Francis of Assisi, the preacher of the pontifical household, Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa OFM Cap, thus commented: Francis gave back “flesh and blood” to the mysteries of Christianity, often “disincarnated” and reduced to concepts and syllogisms in theological schools and books. A German scholar has seen in Francis the one who has created the conditions for the birth of modern Renaissance art , in as much as it sets free sacred persons and events from the stylized rigidity of the past and confers on them concreteness and life. Christ is seen in the poor! Helped in the poor! Heard in the poor! Loved in the poor! That is why Cardinal Cantalamessa kept harping on the fact that the eucharistic solidarity of Jesus is tantamount to the solidarity we show for the poor. Hence, the first thing to do, therefore, in relation to the poor, is to break the double glazing, to overcome our indifference and insensibility. As the Pope [Francis] in fact exhorts us, we must become “aware” of the poor, allow ourselves to be gripped by a healthy anxiety over their presence in our midst, often two steps from our home. What we should do concretely for them, can be summarized in three words: love them, help them, and evangelize them.
By recognizing their dignity and respect them, by learning from them, by authentically regarding them as our real brothers and sisters, and share with them the Good News of salvation, then, on Christmas Day, we have every reason to sing before the Crib those astonishingly majestic words, accompanied by that most delightful melody of that famous Christmas song which came from the heart of the great Doctor of the Church Saint Alphonsus Mary Ligouri:
From starry skies descending,
Thou comest, glorious King,
A manger low Thy bed,
In winter’s icy sting;
O my dearest Child most holy,
Shudd’ring, trembling in the cold!
Thou art the world’s Creator,
Yet here no robe, no fire
For Thee, Divine Lord.
Dearest, fairest, sweetest Infant,
Dire this state of poverty.
The more I care for Thee,
Since Thou, o Love Divine,
Will’st now so poor to be.
May Saint Francis’ integral love for the historic, liturgical, and concrete Christ induces you and me to love him, like Francis did, with our simplicity, humility and generosity of heart not only in this Christmas but in each and every single day of our lives!