The early Church recognized that even sinners celebrate birthdays, but only for Saints could we truly celebrate their death, because this was their “birth” to eternal life. Christmas, the birth of Christ, was therefore NOT a major feast of the early Church. However, over the years, the Church did begin to celebrate the Birth of both Jesus and John the Baptist. The feast we celebrate on December 25th, is now called Christmas, which is Old English for “Christ’s Mass”. Unlike most Christians in his day, St. Francis considered Christmas as the “Feast of Feasts”! Francis’ love for Christmas was celebrated in a special way in 1223, and that celebration shaped for us, how we still celebrate the feast today!
I would like to share more about St. Francis’ contribution to our celebration of Christmas, but first it is fascinating to look at the dates we have chosen to celebrate the births of both Jesus and John the Baptist. We celebrate the Annunciation, or the conception of Jesus on March 25th. Therefore, we celebrate the birth of Jesus but nine months later, on December 25th! When would we celebrate the birthday of John the Baptist? Scripture tells us that “It was in the sixth month” when the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Scripture makes clear in Lk 1:36 that the sixth month is referring to Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist. Therefore, we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist six months before the birth of Jesus! (We actually celebrate it however, on June 24th, because we have used different calendars over the years, and both June 24th and December 25th are 8 days before the end of the month; June has 30 days, and December 31 days.)
These dates have a happy coincidence, and we Christians find a deeper significance in this “coincidence”. We Celebrate the Birth of Jesus around the time of the Winter Solstice, and the Birth of John at the Summer Solstice. At the birth of Jesus, the world is the darkest. Night is longest, and from that time on, the world is growing lighter, because Christ who is “The Light of the World” (Jn 8:12) has come. At the birth of John the Baptist, the opposite is true; the days are becoming shorter, reminding us of the words of John the Baptist speaking about Jesus in Jn 3:30; “He must increase, I must decrease”.
Now, back to St. Francis, and his contribution to our Christmas Celebrations today! Francis had a special love of the Jesus he found in the Gospels. Francis not only tried to live the Gospel message, but to live the exact life of Jesus he saw in the Gospel. (Our Franciscan profession of vows captures this spirituality by describing the intent of Franciscan life as “To follow more closely the Gospel and Footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ”.) In the days of St. Francis, the church more commonly practiced what theologians call a “High Christology”, that is the Church emphasized the truth that Jesus is God, and King, Lord of all. Francis, in his life and spirituality, reclaimed the human aspects of Jesus, and saw the Incarnation as the “Feast of Feasts” because it showed us God’s great Humility, that Christ, truly God and King, would humble himself to be born of Mary, and further, to be born poor, in a manger. Francis believed the way of becoming more Christ-like was through humility and poverty. To celebrate his great love of the Incarnation, three years before his death, Francis while visiting the hermitage in Greccio desired to celebrate Christmas with Great Joy. The chapel of the hermitage was too small to invite the many guests he wished to invite for such a great feast. Francis found a cave in the rocks of the mountain, and asked residents of the village to prepare a manger scene, complete with hay and live animals, in the cave. Together they refashioned the stable of Bethlehem. Over the manger containing a figure of the baby Jesus he put the Altar, where the Christmas Midnight Mass was to be celebrated. The whole town came! They streamed towards the manger with torches lit, lighting up the night, like the stars of the Bethlehem sky 2,000 years ago. St. Francis preached about the Humility of God shown in the Incarnation (God become flesh in Jesus). Each time Francis attempted to say the name of Jesus, overcome by emotion, he could only whisper the “Babe of Bethlehem” instead. The town was deeply moved and newly appreciated this feast. It was reported by one holy man, that as Francis approached the babe in the manger under the Altar, and as he knelt down to pay homage, the babe seemed to come alive! The biographer who recorded this story tells us, “This vision was not unfitting, for the Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many; but, by the working of his grace, he was brought to life again through his servant St. Francis.” (cf. the First Life of St. Francis, by Thomas of Celano.) In the days after “Christ’s Mass”, the people of Greccio spiritually renewed, took the hay from the manger to their homes. It was said to cure animals who were sick, and ease the birth of children for mothers having difficulty in labor. To this day, the main decoration of our homes and Churches is the manger scene, or crèche, and this tradition began with St. Francis and this celebration in Greccio, Italy in 1223, three years before the death of Saint Francis.
It was no coincidence either, that the Altar was placed directly above the manger. It is in the Eucharist that the Incarnation (God become flesh) continues each time Mass is celebrated. For Francis, the Eucharist was the sacrament showing the Humility of God, the continuation of the Incarnation, our very Emmanuel, “God with Us”. For St. Francis, every Eucharist was not only a participation in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but also a continuation of the Incarnation, where God becomes flesh. St. Francis shows us, that every day when we celebrate the Eucharist, we celebrate “Christ’s Mass” or “Christmas”!
Merry Christmas Everyone!
Are you discerning a Vocation of serving God as a Religious Brother or Priest? Come and learn more about Franciscan Spirituality at our next Come & See Event, February 17-19, 2017.