December 15, 2023

Greccio at 800

(This is a reflection I prepared for our quarterly magazine, The Capuchin Journey)

One of St. Francis of Assisi’s early biographers, Brother Thomas of Celano, relates how St. Francis, three years before his passing from this life, planned and celebrated Christmas in the little hill town of Greccio, located about halfway between Rome and Assisi. Three years before his death would make that the Christmas of 1223, of which we mark and celebrate the eighth centenary this year.

St. Francis enlisted the help of local friend, a certain nobleman named John, to help gather everything that was necessary for his idea of putting together a living nativity scene. St. Francis exclaimed,

“I wish to enact the memory of the babe who was born in Bethlehem: to see as much as possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he rested on hay.” (1)

This desire, to know and to feel the love and suffering of Jesus, to follow in his footprint, was Francis’s particular devotion to Christ and his vocation in him. This desire was most perfectly realized in Francis’s experience of the stigmata, which, as St. Bonaventure writes, transformed the lover, Francis, into the image of the Beloved, Christ. (2)

When that Christmas Eve arrived, everything was prepared according to St. Francis’s expressed wish. The ox and the ass were led to the spot, the local faithful approached with lamps and torches for light, and the holy Mass of the vigil of Christmas was celebrated over a manger filled with hay. St. Francis himself sang the gospel of that holy night, and preached with remarkable devotion and sweetness on the King born poor, the ‘babe of Bethlehem’ whom Francis loved and desired with all his heart. It is said that contact with the hay from the manger subsequently restored many animals to good health, and even some people as well.

A curious and yet beautiful vision came to pass during the celebration. One of those present and at prayer, perhaps John of Greccio himself, (3) the friend who had helped St. Francis prepare for that night, saw a baby, apparently lifeless in the manger. St. Francis approached the vision, touched the baby, and awakened him from a deep sleep. St. Bonaventure writes that St. Francis even picked up the baby to embrace him. (4)

The early Franciscan writers note that this vision of St. Francis awakening the child suited the Christmas moment because of Francis’s mission to awaken the presence of Christ in the hearts of many, to stir up in their souls the love of God and devotion to the newborn Christ of Bethlehem. This invitation remains for us today—an invitation, as we approach Christmas ourselves and the eighth centenary of the celebration at Greccio—to allow the example and devotion of Francis of Assisi to stir up to new life the presence of Christ in our hearts.

As we set up our own nativity scenes in our homes, or as we pray before them in our churches, let us ask the Holy Spirit for some small share of St. Francis’s own desire to see with his own bodily eyes the hiddenness and poverty of the Lord born in Bethlehem, and even the ‘discomfort of his infant needs’, born away from home and in a place where there was no room for him or his parents at the inn. And may we also find the answer to this prayer in a renewed vision of the suffering Christ in the poor of our neighborhoods and our country as well as in the fear and terror of those in places, much in our thoughts these days, that are suffering the horror of war.

We need not fear our hearts breaking as we contemplate these sufferings of Christ in the peoples of this world, for if we allow our hearts to break open, we also have hope, and indeed a saving hope. For open hearts are ready to receive the Holy Spirit. And just as at Christmas the Holy Spirit conceives the Word of God as the human life of Jesus of Nazareth, anointing him as Lord and Savior of the world, so the same Spirit, in the same way, can conceive the presence of God in us, making of us Christians, anointed members of Christ after Christ’s own Heart, awakening in us the presence of Jesus.

Opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit in this way as we approach another Christmas, we can let the Spirit make of our own hearts a living nativity scene, a little ‘Greccio’. And if we fear that our hearts might not be fit for God because they can sometimes harbor darkness or even be a little cold at times, let us rejoice, for the good news of Bethlehem is that it is precisely in such places that God wills—indeed desires—to born among us. In this awareness of the littleness and the poverty of our inner self, where Christ wishes to be born and abide—in order to make us a dwelling place for God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22)—we can marvel with St. Francis at the humility and poverty of the God who empties himself into the poverty of our little hearts, so that by his poverty, you might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9) in blessing and grace.

Then, having celebrated Christmas within, having prepared a little ‘Greccio’ in our hearts where God hides and makes himself little in order to glorify our littleness and poverty from the inside, let us let that love of God out, into the outside, where the ‘infant needs’ of Christ are heard in the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth. In this way, the Love of God, made incarnate for us at Christmas, may continue to take flesh in the gentleness and charity we reflect out toward a suffering world.


1. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. Vol. I: The Saint. Eds. Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., J. A. Wayne Hellman, O.F.M. Conv., and William J. Short, O.F.M. (New York: New City Press, 1999), 255. (Hereafter FA:ED.)

2. FA:ED, vol. II: The Founder, 710

3. FA:ED, vol. I: The Saint, 256, footnote c.

4. FA:ED, vol. II: The Founder, 610.