St Francis of Assisi and the Crib
Today, as well as being ‘Gaudete’ Sunday is also ‘Bambinelli’ Sunday when it has become traditional to bless the figure of the Baby JESUS for your cribs at home. This tradition was begun by Pope St John Paul II when the children and adults would bring their Baby JESUS figures to be blessed by the Pope in St Peter’s Square on the Third Sunday of Advent, and it continues to this day.
The origin of the Christmas Crib is attributed to St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). He had recently been in the Holy Land where he had visited the traditional birthplace of Our Lord. So he was inspired to recreate the scene in the woods of Greccio near Assisi, on Christmas Eve. St Francis had a friend by the name of Giovanni Velitta to whom he said, “If you desire that we should celebrate this year’s Christmas together at Greccio, go quickly and prepare what I tell you; for I want to enact the memory of the Infant who was born at Bethlehem and how He was bedded in the manger on hay between a donkey and an ox. I want to see all of this with my own eyes.” Giovanni did exactly as Francis asked. Hay was brought in and even the ox and the donkey! Then all the villagers came with lighted candles and torches and sang hymns. Holy Mass was celebrated at which Francis, who was a Deacon, solemnly chanted the Gospel and preached, where he “spoke charming words concerning the birth of the poor King, and the little town of Bethlehem.” It is recorded that after Mass, Francis went to the crib and stretched out his arms as though the Baby JESUS was there, and that the Babe appeared and the empty manger was filled with the radiance of the new born King.
St Francis, by creating the crib, wanted to show us what God had done for us and how poor He became for us. Our Lord was not a Divine Person hiding behind the facade of a human being. He truly became one of us and “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “His poverty enriches those who embrace it and Christmas brings joy and peace to those who, like the shepherds in Bethlehem, accept the Angel’s words: “Let this be a sign to you: in a manger you will find an Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes” (Luke 2: 12). This is still the sign for us too, men and women of the third millennium. There is no other Christmas.” So may our cribs at home help us to come to a much deeper understanding of God’s great humility and what He has done for us. And let us ask Our Lady to help us enter into the true spirit of Christmas, the coming of the God Man into our world and into our lives.
Fr Paul Gillham, IC