‹ speculatio pauperis in deserto

Venerable night: brilliant & solemn

Dec 04, 2023

It was winter in Italy, eight hundred years ago, & Assisi’s poverello had an idea.1 Francis of Assisi had become obsessed with the words & deeds of Jesus Christ, his rustic parables & simple gestures that, despite (or perhaps because of) their lowliness, communicated divine majesty & awe. According to an early biographer,2 “so thoroughly did the humility of the incarnation & the charity of the passion occupy his memory that he scarcely wanted to think of anything else.” Francis was always imagining new ways to convey this humility & charity to anyone who would listen.

Out of his deep reflection on the “poor & humble Jesus Christ,” Francis hatched a plan to celebrate the feast of the Lord’s nativity, to bring to life the good news that Christmas promises. He led a pair of animals—an ox & a donkey—into a cave near the town of Greccio, about midway between Rome & Assisi. He spread hay on the cave’s floor & set up a manger there. Into that manger he gently laid a sleeping infant. It was Christmas Eve, & Francis of Assisi had staged a living nativity scene.

Francis called his fellow friars to assemble, & the townspeople came out, too, despite the chill in the air. St. Bonaventure describes the light & warmth Francis brought into that cold, dark night:

The brethren are summoned,
the people arrive,
the forest amplifies with their cries,
& that venerable night is rendered
brilliant & solemn
by a multitude of bright lights
& by resonant & harmonious hymns of praise.3

What Francis brought to life with startling clarity in his Christmas crèche is the scandalous claim that lies at the heart of Christianity: that when God enters the world, God enters as a helpless child, squirming in swaddling clothes & tugging at his mother’s breast. Mary gives birth not in a comfortable, sanitary room at the inn, attended to by midwives & physicians, but rather in a dirty barn, as beasts of burden & shepherds look on. God is welcomed into the world not by a rich & powerful family, but rather by poor, refugee parents who are the object of rumor & reproach. This is the nativity of the Lord of the universe! We are told that, on that night, “simplicity is given a place of honor, poverty is exalted, & humility is commended.”4

What Francis teaches us members of the St. Bonaventure University community, we who are heir to the Franciscan tradition, is that holiness is not found among the powerful & the privileged. Holiness is not found in status or comfort. Holiness cannot be bought. Rather, if we wish to find holiness, we must look for it in what is considered lowly & unworthy. We must look for holiness among the rejected & outcast & marginalized. We must look for holiness where we do not expect to find it. Indeed, perhaps holiness is most fully encountered in exactly the places & persons we least expect to find it.

This, indeed, is the reason for the season. This is what Christmas celebrates. What Francis proclaims at Christmas is God’s movement into solidarity with the poor & the vulnerable, as one who is poor & vulnerable, in order that God may “raise up the lowly, & fill the hungry with good things.” Francis’s Christmas crèche invites us to contemplate this mystery & sends us forth to go & do likewise.

  1. I was invited to offer a reflection on the significance of Francis of Assisi’s Christmas crèche, the 800th anniversary of which is celebrated this year, at St. Bonaventure University’s Christmas Tree Lighting. ↩︎

  2. Thomas of Celano’s Vita prima↩︎

  3. Bonaventure’s Legenda maior↩︎

  4. Thomas of Celano, Vita prima↩︎