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‘Contemplate Jesus’ This Christmas: A New Bethlehem and the Lessons of Greccio

We live at a time in which Christmas crèches have become so much a part of Catholic piety that many believe that they must have existed from the first centuries of Christianity.

But they are an “invention” of St. Francis of Assisi, who, 800 years ago this December, created a living Nativity in the mountainous Italian village of Greccio, located about halfway between Rome and Assisi. The topography and architecture of Greccio — where Francis would frequently stay to preach and to pray — reminded him of Bethlehem, which he had visited four years before. So with the permission of Pope Honorius III, who in the previous month had definitively confirmed in Rome the Franciscan rule, and the help of Giovanni Veleti, Greccio’s chief nobleman, Francis decided to try to bring the mystery of Bethlehem alive.

His first biographer, Thomas of Celano, says that “of Greccio there was made as it were a new Bethlehem.” Per Francis’ instructions, in a cave, Veleti arranged an ox, a donkey and a manger full of straw. The townspeople came in huge numbers, with tapers and torches that combined to illumine the night like the ancient star of Bethlehem.

Directly over the manger, a makeshift altar was erected to celebrate Mass. It’s the only recorded time that St. Francis served as a deacon: He chanted the Gospel with “an earnest, sweet, clear and loud voice,” preached “mellifluous words concerning the birth of the poor King in the little town of Bethlehem” and with “exceeding love” called people to adore the “Bambino” of Bethlehem.

Celano notes the impact the living Nativity and the Mass had on the townspeople.

“The Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many,” he said, “but, by the working of divine grace, he was brought to life again through his servant Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory.”

Note that the details of the birth of Christ hadn’t been forgotten in people’s heads; they had, however, failed to penetrate their hearts and lives. While they still knew the facts, devotion had grown cold. The Nativity scene and the Mass — the Gospel, the homily and the living presence of Christ in the Eucharist — combined to revive it.

This Advent and Christmas, as the Church looks with gratitude back to 1223, it’s important to remember the lessons of Greccio. The Child Jesus has similarly been forgotten in the hearts of many today, and, likewise, many miss the connection between the manger and the Mass.

Read more at National Catholic Register 

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