St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and founder of the Franciscan Order began the tradition of nativity scenes. Christmas was celebrated with a Mass where the priests would tell the Christmas story. Often this was not accessible by ordinary people who could not speak Latin and any artistic renditions that were available were often very fancy and not very realistic.
In the year 1223 St Francis wanted to engage everyone in this joyous occasion. He wanted everyone to be touched by the love of God sending his Son into the world for each one of us. It is said that Francis was inspired with this idea after making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Francis was living in Greccio, Italy at the time and he asked the Pope for permission to present a live nativity to the people. The Pope agreed and Francis asked his close friend John Velita to loan him some animals and straw to set up the scene in a cave just outside Greccio (see Giotto’s painting of this on the cover). The scene consisted of a wax figure of the infant Jesus, a live donkey, an ox and two people dressed as Mary and Joseph and an empty manager. Local shepherds watched their sheep nearby, just as they did on that first Christmas night. He wanted all to understand how Christ came into the world in such humility, simplicity and poverty.
During the Mass, Francis told the Christmas story from the Bible and delivered his sermon. He told how placing their faith in Jesus Christ, the baby born in a simple manager in Bethlehem, could change their lives. Francis was so moved by the occasion and full of tenderness and love for Our Lord he called Him the Babe of Bethlehem. The first nativity scene is also associated with an apparition of the Baby Jesus to those gathered with St. Francis. This must have been Jesus’ way of giving his blessing to this remarkable experience for all gathered and the tradition it has created.
When you arrange your nativity scene this Christmas, remember the first scene set by St Francis. The nativity is a tool for all ages; helping us to retell this marvellous story to young and old alike and meditate on the humility, simplicity and poverty that Christ took on out of love for each of us. Having a nativity scene in our home is our witness to those who come to visit and tell of the true meaning of Christmas.