Brother Thomas of Celano wrote several different biographies of our Holy Father St. Francis. In chapter thirty of the first life, he penned the following lines.
“Francis used to recall with regular meditation the words of Christ and recollect His deeds with most attentive perception. Indeed, so thoroughly did the humility of the Incarnation and the charity of the Passion occupy his memory that he scarcely wanted to think of anything else” (Chapter XXX, 84b).
This single paragraph of that first biography inspired the friars to hold up three symbols to remind us of Francis’ devotion to the Nativity and to the Crucifixion of Jesus; namely, the crèche, the cross, and the Eucharist. The chapel of our Novitiate in Franklin, Indiana, had three stained glass panels that placed these three symbols before our eyes each day. Francis was so in love with the humility of the Christmas crèche that he reenacted the scene in Greccio. Brother Thomas continues:
“Finally, the holy man of God comes and, finding all things prepared, he saw them and was glad. Indeed, the manger is prepared, the hay is carried in, and the ox and the ass are led to the spot. There simplicity is given a place of honor, poverty is exalted, humility is commended, and out of Greccio is made a new Bethlehem.”
Thus was born the practice which is so much a part of our culture to this day as Christians everywhere erect Christmas crèches in their homes and Churches. Even in the market place, examples of God’s sublime act of selfless love is commemorated with such displays.
I suspect that when we think of the humility of the Nativity, we might automatically think of the fact that Jesus was born in a stable and placed in a manger, that his mother and foster father were left without any help in delivering the baby. We usually think of it being cold and uncomfortable.
However, the real humility that is held up to us for consideration in the Nativity is not the wretched poverty of Bethlehem. The real humility lies in the fact that Jesus freely became one of us lowly human beings, that in doing so he forfeited for a time his divine status and power. This act of kenosis, of self-emptying so that he could be one of us, is the paragon of humility and the attribute which Francis used to recall regularly in his meditation. It stands in stark contrast to the world in which we live where we are surrounded and flooded these days by people who prefer selfish accumulation of power and wealth.
The humility of Bethlehem reoccurs every day on our altars where Jesus presents himself to us as bread for the journey and food for our souls. Each and every time we present the simple and humble elements of bread and wine, Jesus deigns to be reborn again in our midst, fulfilling the promise he made that he would not abandon us.
Francis sings of this humility in his Letter to the Entire Order written in 1225:
“Let the whole world and heavens exult when Christ, Son of the living God, is present on the altar. O wonderful loftiness and stupendous dignity! O sublime humility! The Lord of the universe, God and Son of God, so humbles himself that for our salvation he visits us under an ordinary piece of bread! Look at the humility of God and pour out your hearts before him. Hold back nothing of yourselves so that He who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally!”
As we recall the birth of Jesus, we are called to emulate the humility of the crèche. As we eat his body and drink his blood, we are called to the same selfless love that was displayed in the stable of Bethlehem. It is said that Francis spent part of each day meditating on the humility of the Incarnation and the charity of the Passion. As he submerged himself in that mystery a little more each day, he gradually stripped away all pretense and all sinful pride. Our celebration of the Nativity calls us to do the same.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator