Spending Christmas With St Francis

Adoration of the Shepherds – Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio), 1609. Oil on canvas. Museo Regionale, Messina.

I recently spent some time reviewing the life of Francis of Assisi and was incredibly inspired by his example and his devotion to Jesus Christ.  He was born about 1200 years after the death of Christ in the town of Assisi in central Italy. His father was a successful merchant, and this gave Francis a life of privilege and prosperity. For a time he was a soldier and then a merchant himself. In his youth he had a reputation for being the life the party. But this all changed because of a vision Francis had while still a young man. He was praying in a run-down country chapel called San Damiano when the Lord appeared to him in a vision and said: “Francis, don’t you see my house is crumbling apart? Go then, and rebuild it.”

Initially Francis interpreted this as an instruction to do renovations on San Damiano chapel, which was in sore need of repair. When he tried to use his father’s money to pay for the renovations, they had a major falling out. Francis became homeless. Nevertheless, he still raised money to buy renovation supplies and then went to work. But having finished these repairs, he still felt God was telling him to ‘rebuild’. In time, Francis came to realize that he was being instructed to rebuild the church as a whole. While others worked to spread Christianity to non-believers, Francis reached out to those that already believed. It was not so much reconstruction, but instead was reconversion. His call was to help believers whose personal faith had fallen into disrepair.

Francis rejected the trappings of his family’s wealth and social stature and devoted himself to a life of simplicity, poverty and service. You would be hard pressed to find a better example of a true Christian than Francis in any era, especially considering that there was only limited light of the gospel on the earth at this time in history. By now you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with a Christmas message. Well, this Christmas I was reminded of the story of Francis’ commemoration of the Christmas of 1223, just three years before he died.

Francis was then staying the small mountainous village of Greccio. In the towns of the Umbrian countryside, people were simple and did not have access the scriptures. Their only religious instruction came from the Catholic mass, which was delivered exclusively in Latin. However, the people only spoke and understood an Umbrian dialect. Francis had long felt that he had been called to preach the gospel to the people outside of a church in the language they understood.  He taught them that they could worship God and pray to Him in their own language. Accordingly, Francis’ teachings were transformative—even though they were given to people that already believed.

Though the Christmas feast was by then already steeped in tradition, Francis wanted to help the people of Greccio experience Christmas in a way that they had never experienced it before. He arranged for a friend to place a manger with hay in a cave about a mile from town. He had an ox and an ass placed by the manger. Then, depending on which version of the story you believe, he either had a couple with a small baby dressed like Joseph, Mary and the newborn baby Jesus placed by the manger, or he placed a carving of the Christ child in the manger. All the stories agree that on Christmas Eve, Francis led the town people through the woods to the cave. When they came upon the illuminated manger scene they were struck with awe. It was as if they were all there in Bethlehem 1223 years earlier. They sang hymns of praise and watched in wonder at the scene before them. Francis told the Christmas story to the people—not in Latin—but in their own language. He helped them to experience Christ that Christmas in personal way. Finally, as the people watched on, they saw Francis overcome with emotion as he knelt before the manger and embraced the child he called “the babe of Bethlehem”.

It is taken for granted today that we recreate these scenes every Christmas. We call it a crèche or a nativity. I would venture to guess that almost every LDS family has some sort of depiction of this in their home. Amazingly enough, 1223 is the first documented commemoration of Christmas with a nativity of this type. The insignificant town of Greccio, just like the insignificant town of Bethlehem, was now on the map.

I think it is important to note that townspeople of Greccio had long been god-fearing Christians that had probably celebrated Christmas on an annual basis as far back as anyone could remember. I have no doubt that Christmas was always special to them. But the Christmas of 1223 changed everything because on that Christmas, people experienced the miracle of the Savior’s birth a way they had never experienced it before.

A few years ago our family had a Christmas that was a bit of a game changer. During the Christmas of 2012, we were in Morocco, a country that is 99% Muslim. Over a period of two weeks, I saw exactly two Christmas trees. There was no Christmas music or decorations. There were no daily reminders of the number of shopping days left until Christmas. We were not inundated with commercial images of Christmas everywhere we looked. It was as if we were in a place where they had never even heard of Christmas.

At every corner we saw humble people that lived much like people did in the time and place where Jesus was born. It seemed like there were shepherds on every rocky mountainside. People dressed like they just came off the set of a Bible movie. They loaded their wares on donkeys or balanced them on their heads; they rushed through crowded markets filled with unusual products and strange smells. But outwardly Christmas was nowhere to be seen.

Fortunately our family managed to find Christmas in Morocco that year. Not because it was thrust upon us, but because we were looking for it. That Christmas, though different from any other Christmas I’d celebrated before or since, was beautiful. It will always be a Christmas that I will cherish.

Now I have absolutely no doubt that for most of us Christmas as we usually celebrate it, is wonderful. For most of us it’s our favorite time of the year. For most of us, we don’t feel like we need to fix something that’s not broken. I’m certainly not here to say that you’re doing it all wrong. But there is a chance that—in a season that is so steeped in tradition and so packed with time demands, pressures and distractions—that we fail to fully remember what we are celebrating in the first place.

If we were to spend time with Francis this Christmas, I suspect he’d tell us to keep doing all the things we normally do that make Christmas so awesome. After all, he didn’t cancel any of the festivities that were already planned for Christmas in 1223. Things like Santa and presents, and decorations and family traditions will always be a part of what makes Christmas so beautiful for us. Francis would encourage us to keep and cherish all of these.

I am equally confident Francis would not have us pack our bags and head off to Greccio or to Marrakech either. But I do think he would encourage us to do whatever it takes to individually experience Christ this Christmas. Francis would tell us to carry on if this is something you already do. If not—or if not yet—he would tell us to not put it off any longer.

How then do we experience Christ more completely this Christmas? The formula will likely be different for each of us. It might involve setting up your own crèche, or reading the scriptures, or listening to music, or private prayer, or personal meditation. It might even include studying the example of a Catholic saint. I feel that any mechanism that helps us personally experience Christ this Christmas is fine. It matters less how we do it, only that we do it. I am confident that as we do, a season we’ve looked forward to with hope and anticipation for months can be a true game changer for us individually.

Ours is the challenge to rediscover Christ this Christmas and every Christmas. As we do, we will find ourselves reconverted to the faith. We will also be renewed by the joy that comes from recognizing “the babe of Bethlehem” as the Gift that will save the world.

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