Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Greccio - New Bethlehem

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.


  1. Francis saw the emptying of the glory of the Son of God, born of a gentle mother but still thrown upon a stony and resisting world. A world still hard and resisting. There is much rethinking to be done in these times.

  2. To be sure. And Pope Francis seems to believe that the Church can pattern or model this re-thinking for the world. Let's not lose the joy in it. The Spirit is present where there is re-thinking.

  3. These are exciting times for the church. Pope Francis radiates a sense of joy in the love and mercy of God. He seems to have faith from the start - his grandmother's gift. So many of us started that way. It seems grandmother's have a bigger challenge bringing the faith to their grandchildren these days. I think God's mercy has to be shown to them. God knows, they are so worth it.

  4. My paternal grandmother was Irish born and spiritually very formative of me. I am grateful for her presence in my life.