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Catholic Activity: Influence of St. Francis on the Christmas Crib



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After Francis' Christmas at Greccio, imitating the scene at Bethlehem, Christmas cribs and devotion at the Nativity feast was changed forever.


St. Francis' Christmas at Greccio was not only an echo of Bethlehem or the expression of individual devotion evolved from older forms; in the fullest sense it was an augury of the future, and within a few years the Friars had carried it to every country of Europe.

St. Bonaventure says that Francis desired this particular celebration "to move the people to greater devotion," and moved they were to new enthusiasm and new joy. The Franciscan spirit gathered up all the old tendencies to stress the human and pathetic aspects of the gospel story and the least lettered could understand the Greccio Christmas Crib as well as any doctor of theology. It had an eloquence, a tenderness and single-minded simplicity of intention that the elaborate Nativity drama had lost. To those Umbrian peasants listening to Francis the Nativity of Christ must have been something as real as the birth of their own children: he gave into the arms of his followers that most precious of all babies, the Bambino Gesu.

From that moment the cult of the Christ Child is intensified: in the Franciscan world the Son of God becomes the loveliest of earth's children, the dear Little Lord Jesus who is everybody's Brother. We see Him throwing His arms round His Mother's neck while artists dwell caressingly on the perfect Baby's body that lies kicking in the straw or opening His eyes in delight at the sight of a bird held out by St. Joseph. The angels become lovely dimpled babies too, playfellows who sing and play and offer Him fruit when they are not kneeling round the manger all "reverent, timid, and obedient." A new spring of poetic imagination had been released, and at its source stood Francis. On one point, however, certainly the Italian painters and even the poets do not follow Francis who saw the newborn Christ in the reality of what that implies. We repeat: In art the age of the King of Heaven in Bethlehem is almost never that of a baby a few hours old.

The mark of Francis remained on every art; he who was one of the first of Italian poets writing in the vernacular was followed by any number of laud singers, and nativity lauds of Italy were first cousins to the carols of France and England, of Germany and Spain.

During the fourteenth century two other works appeared, both of major importance to Nativity poetry and iconography: The Golden Legend of James of Voragine, and the Hundred Meditations on the life of Christ probably by an Italian Franciscan. Of the two, The Golden Legend is on far the grander scale, and in the chapter on the Nativity the author repeats many of the older legends and also gives an account of the Sybil who had found her way into the Nativity Dramas together with the Prophets. It was she who, when the Emperor was consulting her, showed him a golden circle round the sun in the midst of which was a beautiful Virgin holding a Child in her arms. And when the Emperor asked for an explanation of the vision he heard a voice saying: "This is the altar of heaven and this Child is greater than thou art, therefore we adore Him." This legend accounts for the foundation of the Ara Coeli church in Rome, and for the presence of a man and woman, the Emperor and the Sybil in many later Italian Cribs.

The Golden Legend also gives a vivid description of the Magi's journey which may well have served as the guiding text for a great Epiphany procession instituted by the Dominicans in Milan when different scenes were enacted at various points of the city. The Milanese could not forget that the relics of the Three Kings had been transferred from their church of Sant' Eustorgo to Cologne by the chancellor of Frederick Barbarossa.

The Hundred Meditations were even more popular than The Golden Legend, and though the book was intended only for the spiritual exercises of a Poor Clare nun it was read throughout Europe. It is full of tender human details, as for instance when it tells that the Little Lord Jesus was painfully circumcised which made Him and His Mother cry, but He gulped down His sobs because He could not bear to see her so sad. And the author admonishes the Poor Clare that she should emulate the adoration of the shepherds, "do thou likewise and ask His Mother that she may give Him to thee to hold and caress in thine arms, and look well on His face, and reverently kiss and be glad of Him. And this thou canst do in all confidence for He has come to dwell among sinners for their salvation." He also says that during the Christmas season not a day should pass in which Christians have not visited our Lady and her Son in the Crib while meditating on "their poverty and humility and great dignity."

To these we must add the Revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden who was also a follower of St. Francis, and who strikes the direct note of one who has seen and not only imagined a scene. She writes:

"When I was present by the manger of the Lord in Bethlehem I beheld a Virgin of extreme beauty wrapped in a white mantle and a delicate tunic through which I perceived her virginal body. With her was an old man of great honesty and they had with them an ox and ass. These entered the cave and the man having tied them to the manger went out and brought in to the Virgin a lighted candle which having done he again went outside so as not to be present at the birth. Then the Virgin pulled off the shoes from her feet, drew off the white mantle that enveloped her, removed the veil from her head laying it beside her, thus remaining only in her tunic with her beautiful golden hair falling loosely over her shoulders. Then she produced two small linen cloths, and two woollen ones of exquisite purity and fineness which she had brought to wrap round the Child to be born, and two other small cloths to cover His head, and these too she put beside her. When all was thus prepared the Virgin knelt with great veneration in an attitude of prayer; her back was to the manger, her face uplifted to heaven and turned toward the East.

"Then, her hands extended and her eyes fixed on the sky she stood as in an ecstasy, lost in contemplation, in a rapture of divine sweetness. And while she stood thus in prayer I saw the Child in her womb move; suddenly in a moment she gave birth to her own Son from whom radiated such ineffable light and splendour that the sun was not comparable to it while the divine light totally annihilated the material light of St. Joseph's candle. So sudden and instantaneous was this birth that I could neither discover nor discern by what means it had occurred. All of a sudden I saw the glorious Infant lying on the ground naked and shining, His body pure from any soil or impurity. Then I heard the singing of the angels of miraculous sweetness and beauty. When the Virgin felt she had borne her Child immediately she worshipped Him, her hands clasped in honour and reverence saying: 'Be welcome my God, my Lord, my Son.'

"Then, as the Child was whining and trembling from the cold and hardness of the floor where He was lying, He stretched out His arms imploring her to raise Him to the warmth of her maternal love. So His Mother took Him in her arms, pressed Him to her breast and cheek, and warmed Him with great joy and tender compassion. She then sat down on the ground laying the Child on her lap and at once began to bestow on Him much care tying up His small body, His legs and arms in long cloths, and enveloped His head in the linen garments, and when this was done the old man entered, and prostrating himself on the floor he wept for joy. And in no way was the Virgin changed by giving birth, the color of her face remained the same nor did her strength decline. She and Joseph put the Child in the manger, and worshipped Him on their knees with immense joy until the arrival of the Kings who recognized the Son from the likeness to His Mother."

We cannot leave Bride's Book without remembering its English reader, Margery Kempe, that enthusiastic pilgrim who was in the Holy Land early in the fifteenth century and recorded her sensations at length. Her keen imagination was perhaps an exception to the general rule; nevertheless carols, lauds, plays, pictures, and sculptures prove how many people were sufficiently like her to account for some of the most attractive passages and details of contemporary art and literature. They all contributed to the Christmas Crib.

Activity Source: Christmas Crib, The by Nesta de Robeck, The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, 1956