Today begins the season of Advent. For me, Advent is the most wonderful time of the liturgical season. With all the hustle and bustle of Christmas, Advent reminds us to always keep the purpose and reason behind Christmas in the forefront of our minds.
One small way this is accomplished by Christians is the nativity scene put up in the home. A gentle reminder that Christ’s birth should be our focus. So with Advent beginning today, I thought a brief reflection on the origin of the crib would be appropriate.
It dates back to the 13th century in Italy, and my favorite Saint, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, or has he would forever be known, St. Francis.
Francis had recently returned from visiting the Holy Land where he had venerated Jesus’s traditional birthplace. In 1223, as Christmas neared, St. Francis found himself in the town of Greccio, Italy. There lived in that town a man by the name of Giovanni Velitta. Francis called upon John about two weeks before Christmas and said to him, “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.”
Signor Velitta brought everything St. Francis needed to create his Nativity scene in the forest on the outskirts of the village. St. Francis sought and received permission from the Pope to create his scene. He arrived in the forest and got to work creating the scene.
On Christmas night, the villagers of Greccio flocked to the scene out in the forest. They carried candles and torches to light the night and scene. The crib had been set up inside a small cave in the forest. There was a manger, hay, a donkey and an ass, and humans in the role of the biblical figures.
The scene was described by St. Bonaventure, a contemporary of Francis. He said that the villagers and friars crowded around the scene, as mass was led by a priest (Francis was a deacon, not a priest.) He writes, “The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.”
What was most written about by biographers was the sermon given by Francis that night. Thomas of Celano, another contemporary, writes: “The saint of God stood before the manger, uttering sighs, overcome with love and filled with a wonderful happiness….He sang the Gospel in a sonorous voice, a clear and sonorous voice, inviting all to the highest rewards. Then he preached to the people standing about and spoke charming words concerning the birth of the poor King, and the little town of Bethlehem.”
From that event in the forest of Greccio, the idea of a crib spread all over the Christian World, and soon cribs were found in churches, and most importantly, people’s homes.
St. Francis, with his unbridled devotion to the poor and to poverty, I believe wanted to use the crib as a reminder to all of how Jesus came into the world; born in a simple food trough for animals. In today’s world, the crib not only reminds us of that, but it also assures that we remember in the crazy, busy, commercialized world what Christmas is all about.