HERE IS A PHOTOGRAPH of the wonderful, mountainside Franciscan monastery at Greccio, Italy. This is where Francis popularized the Christmas Nativity scene with lights, song, live animals and people assuming the traditional roles.
I visited Greccio for a day during a three month sabbatical some years ago: train from Assisi, bus and then a long hike up the mountain, arriving seconds before siesta time, the sister in charge setting me up to offer Mass in the cave where Francis and the villagers re-created the holy scene.
Here is the lovely account as told by Paul Sabatier in his book The Road to Assisi.
The population of Greccio and its environs was therefore, assembled, as well as the brothers from the neighboring monasteries. On the evening of the Vigil of Christmas one might have seen the faithful hastening to the hermitage by every path with torches in their hands, making the forests ring with their joyful hymns.
Everyone was rejoicing - Francis most of all. The knight had prepared a stable with straw and brought an ox and a donkey, whose breath seemed to give warmth to the poor bambino, numbed with cold. At the sight the saint felt tears of pity warm his face; he was no longer in Greccio, his heart was in Bethlehem.
Finally they began to chant matins, then the Mass was begun, and Francis, as deacon, read the Gospel. Already, hearts were touched by the simple recital of the sacred legend in a voice so gentle and so fervent, but when he preached, his emotion soon overcame the audience. His voice had so unutterable a tenderness that they also forgot everything and were living over again the feeling of the shepherds of Judea, who in those days of old went to adore the God made man, born in a stable.
In a side note Paul Sabatier tells us that when Francis pronounced the word Bethlehem it sounded like the bleating of a lamb. And when Francis said the name of Jesus or Babe of Bethlehem he seemed to hold the words on his palate as if tasting something sweet.
Here is the fresco painted on the plastered cave wall over the little altar: Mary nursing the Holy Child at Bethlehem. The stone crib resembles his tomb. The swaddling clothes; his shroud.
A priest said once that we needn't pay much attention to the Gospel's infancy accounts - that Jesus grew up is all that matters. I disagree. For Bethlehem, everything is changed. God has put away sending the plagues and smoking mountains, defeating armies and destroying cities. Some Christians are not comfortable with God's new approach of entering our world as a defenseless baby because it means we can't be fans of capital punishment, global militarization, clerical chaplaincies to governments, and the trappings of power, whether it's our money, our technology, titles, professional initials or the status designations of colored clerical buttons, capes and caps. Everything must be re-thought. God has joined us in powerlessness; God cries for his mother's milk.