(The Nationalist, December 2004)
‘Saint Francis of Assisi’s highest ambition, his chief desire, his uppermost purpose was to observe the holy Gospel in all things. With all the fervour of his heart he wished to follow the teaching and the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ’.
‘What he did on the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ near the town of Greccio in the third year before his death should be recalled with reverent memory. In that place there was a man by the name of John, of good reputation and even better life, whom blessed Francis loved with a special love. Francis said to John, “I wish to do something that will recall to memory the child who was born in Bethlehem, and set before our eyes how he lay in a manger, how, with an ox and ass standing by, he lay upon the hay where he had been placed”’.
‘At length the saint of God came, and finding all things prepared, he saw it and was glad. The manger was prepared, the hay had been brought, the ox and the ass were led in. The night was lighted up like the day, and it delighted people and animals alike. People came and were filled with new joy over the mystery. The woods rang with the voices of the crowd. The brothers sang, giving praise to the Lord, and the whole night resounded with their rejoicing’.
‘The saint of God stood before the manger, sighing, overcome with love, and filled with a wonderful happiness. Mass was celebrated over the manger and the priest experienced a new consolation. Francis sang the Gospel in a sonorous voice. He preached to the people, speaking about the birth of the poor King, whom he called simply the Child of Bethlehem’.
‘The Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many, but, by the working of his grace, he was brought to life again and stamped on the reverent memory of the people. At length, the solemn night celebration was brought to a close, and all returned to their homes with holy joy’.
(This story of the first Christmas crib is taken from the Life of Saint Francis of Assisi, by Brother Thomas of Celano, written in 1228-9.)