By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Each year, Christians around the world commemorate the birth of Jesus by performing a reenactment of the nativity scene or displaying a crèche at home. “We are drawn each Christmas to ‘come and adore him,’” said Andrew Reif, a secular Franciscan and deacon candidate from St. Mary Parish in Dodgeville.
It is a tradition that came to prominence 900 years ago when St. Francis of Assisi invited his companions to bring torches to a cave outside of Greccio, Italy, on Christmas Eve. The faithful gazed upon a manger with hay and two live animals while St. Francis preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.”
The sole historical account of this event, written by St. Bonaventure, explains that St. Francis saw the living nativity scene as a way to “excite the inhabitants” to commemorate Christmas with “great devotion.”
It seems St. Francis was successful in his efforts. St. Boniface explained, “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. The man of God stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy.”
Historians believe St. Francis developed a special devotion to Christmas time after visiting the Holy Land and Bethlehem. He also may have been inspired by mosaics in the Roman Basilica of Saint Mary Major depicting the birth of Jesus.
Deacon Frank Agnoli, a secular Franciscan who serves the Davenport Diocese as director of Liturgy and of Deacon Formation, is not surprised that St. Francis chose to commemorate the birth of Jesus in this “tangible, physical, sensual” way. “His was not a heady, theoretical faith. It was lived. He hugged the person with leprosy. He physically rebuilt chapels. He imitated the poor Christ — to the point of receiving the physical stigmata. For all his asceticism, the body mattered to Francis. The incarnation and the crucifixion — the humanity of Christ, that was key for him.”
The popularity of the nativity scene as a Christmas tradition began to grow in the centuries to follow, first throughout Italy and later throughout Europe, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Later scenes incorporated more animals — pulling inspiration from depictions in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew — and live actors portraying Mary, Joseph and other figures. Model depictions of the nativity — especially in the home — became popular, as well.
Pope Francis in a 2019 apostolic letter described the nativity scene as “a living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture. As we contemplate the Christmas story, we are invited to set out on a spiritual journey, drawn by the humility of the God who became man in order to encounter every man and woman. We come to realize that so great is his love for us that he became one of us, so that we in turn might become one with him.”
Reif sees the nativity scene as a reminder that God wished to send his son to save us and to be more intimately connected to us. “The infant Jesus needs to be cared for — nurtured by the Holy Family. In order for him to save us, he must be taken care of. The vulnerability of the infant Jesus shows me that we too are called to be vulnerable and in turn allow Jesus to care for us.”