The Gospel account of Jesus’ nativity is so graphic that it invites artists to depict it. As early as the fifth century, Pope Sixtus III constructed a group of Nativity figures in a little grotto in Rome’s great Marian church, St. Mary Major. In fact, that basilica became also known as “S. Maria ad Praesepe”. (“St. Mary of the Manger”).
It was, however, St. Francis of Assisi who launched the Christmas Crib as a worldwide popular devotion. He planned and featured the first holiday crib in 1223, at the Italian hill-town of Greccio, near Rieti. Here is the story, as recounted by Thomas of Celano in his “First Life of St. Francis”, written A.D. 1232-1239.
“What he did on the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ near the little town called Greccio… should be recalled with reverent memory.
“In that place there was a certain man named John, of good reputation and better life…. Blessed Francis sent for this man… and he said to him, ‘If you want us to celebrate the present feast of our Lord at Greccio, go with haste and diligently prepare what I tell you…. For I wish to do something that will recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem….’When the good and faithful man heard these things, he ran with haste and prepared in that place all the things the saint had told him.
“But the day of rejoicing drew near, the time of great rejoicing came. The friars were called from their various places. Men and women of that neighborhood prepared with glad hearts candles and torches to light up that night. 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 in, the ox and the ass were led in. The people came and were filled with new joy over the new mystery…. The friars sang… and the whole night resounded with their rejoicing. The solemnities of the Mass were celebrated over the manger and the priest experienced a new consolation.
“The saint of God was clothed with the vestments of a deacon, for he was a deacon, and he sang the holy Gospel in a sonorous voice. Then he preached, and he spoke charming words concerning the nativity of the poor King and the little town of Bethlehem… His mouth was filled more with sweet affection than with words.
“The gifts of the Almighty were multiplied there, and a wonderful vision was seen by a certain virtuous man. For he saw a little child lying in the manger lifeless, and he saw the holy man of God go up to it and rouse the child from a deep sleep. This vision was not unfitting, for the Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of men; but by the working of his grace, he was brought to life again through his servant St. Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory.”
It had, indeed, been the intention of Francis, by a concrete representation of the manger-crib, the hay, the live animals, and the child-image, to remind all of the pitiably harsh circumstances of the birth of the Son of God. The Christmas crèche first popularized on that day, has since become an effective international reminder at Christmastide, that Jesus’ arms still stretch out for our love.
–Father Robert F McNamara