The Power and the Beauty of the Creche
It started simply. He wanted to celebrate Christmas in a new way by re-creating the stable of Bethlehem. He would have a real ox and ass there, and they would celebrate mass outside the cave with a bare rock for an altar. Francis, who was a deacon, would read the Gospel and preach to the brothers and the townspeople of Greccio whom the brothers would invite to midnight mass.
He asked a local nobleman, John of Velita, a devout man devoted to the brothers, to make the preparations. And all went as planned. In the heart of night the townspeople crossed from Greccio to the hermitage carrying lighted candles and singing Christmas songs. They were amazed at the scene before them, the live Christmas crib that made them see the poverty and humility of God.
So excited was Francis that when he preached, he could not say Bethlehem without bleating like a lamb when he pronounced the word, “Betlemme.” And when the people looked curiously at him, he told them that he had become a lamb and they should, too, in order to honor this Little Lamb of God born to them this night. There was no baby lying on the straw because Francis knew that the one to be born in the Mass was he who was born in Bethlehem.
But when he finished preaching, he turned to the crèche and saw a little baby lying on the stone altar, the Little Word of God made flesh; and he took it in his arms. He didn’t know if the people saw what he held, but they would understand the pantomime, the gesture of reaching down to the altar and lifting something tenderly to his heart.
It was the dearest of Christmases and lifted Francis’ heart from the depths to which it had fallen. Like the hermitage of Greccio itself his faith, that had been clinging desperately to the side of the mountain, let go. And the hermitage did not plummet to the valley below, nor did his faith. It was lifted up with the baby he lifted in his arms.
The people remained after the mass and prayed in the makeshift stable. They asked if they could have some of the straw strewn over the dirt floor for the animals. And when they took it home, Francis heard that animals were healed in eating a portion of the hay, and women undergoing a difficult birth happily and safely delivered their baby. And Francis gave thanks and praised God that indeed this was a new birth of Christ, the Baby and Little Lamb of God.
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