Like all the saints, St. Francis was a man who loved to meditate on the life of Jesus. He could sit or kneel or lie on the ground and pray for hours just thinking about the life of our Lord. Many times he would picture in his mind a Gospel scene and put himself right into the midst of the action. He’d be there at the Cleansing of the Temple watching Jesus drive out the money changers, or he’d be in the crowd listening to the Sermon on the Mount, or he’d be with the people lining the street watching as Jesus carried his cross, and then following our Lord all the way to Calvary and Crucifixion. But there was one particular event in our Lord’s life that St. Francis loved to meditate on, and that was his birth. And he must have preached about this quite a bit because many artists have painted St. Francis right into the nativity. Many times he’s painted in among the shepherds and the sheep. He’s in these paintings even though he lived 1200 years after the Birth of Jesus.
So we might ask ourselves in his meditation of our Lord’s birth what did St. Francis see? He maybe saw a nervous first time mom and dad bringing their child into the world in the midst of poverty and grime. What did St. Francis feel? He may have felt the course straw and rough wood that was to be the first bed of our Lord. He may have felt the wet noses of animals that just wouldn’t stay away. What did St Francis hear? He might have heard owls in the rafters, the sounds of sheep and cattle. He may have heard the sound of a baby crying and a new mom soothing her baby. What did he smell? He probably smelled hay, manure, cows and sheep, and he smelled the shepherds. Who smelled just like their sheep.
What in his mind’s eye did St. Francis see in his meditations? He saw that the one who could make the sun warm the earth would have need of an ox and donkey to warm him with their breath. He saw the one who clothed the fields with grass would Himself be born naked. He saw that the one from whose hands came planets and worlds would have tiny arms not long enough to reach up to touch the heads of cattle that hovered above. That omnipotence Himself would be wrapped in swaddling and that salvation Himself would lay in a manger. All these images and more is what St. Francis meditated on and from these meditations he preached on Christmas day.
A lesson on mystical theology. As we know, God exists outside of time. But when Jesus entered into time, time freaked out, time freaked because time cannot contain Jesus or any of the events of his life. Jesus is not limited to his 33 years of life on earth two millennia ago. Jesus is true man and true God and because he is true God his life cannot remain in the past, his life transcends time. And here, is a beautiful and awesome thing about being a Christian. When we were baptized we were filled with the very life of God, his sanctifying grace, and as the water was being poured over our body our souls received the Divine virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. And it’s these virtues that allow us to transcend time, and be with Jesus at all the important events of his life. Amazing! That’s what we do here at Mass.
Example, whenever our heart is moved with faith and charity at the remembrance of some event of our Lord’s life, the nativity or the events surrounding the nativity, for example, then we are there mystically, transported to that event of our Lord’s life, we are there to love Him and console Him. And using the Inn Keeper as an example, in a very real way we are more present to Jesus than that inn keeper who turned away the Holy Family. The inn keeper was there physically but he had no faith and no charity. But for us who live in faith and charity we are there making room for Jesus in our hearts. The wisdom of Jesus, the words of Jesus, the Word made Flesh himself, cannot remain in the past, He transcends time. Our faith, our hope, our charity keeps us very connected to Jesus.
Now it is to St. Francis that we attribute the custom of displaying a nativity in our town squares, our homes, and our Churches. He may not have been the first to conceive of this remembrance of our Lord’s birth. But he was the one to popularize the custom. In the year 1223 St. Francis found himself in the small town of Grecchio. This was a small Italian town built on the side of a mountain. And St. Francis wanted Midnight Mass to be celebrated in a place large enough so that all the people in town could attend. Their Franciscan chapel was much too small for everyone to fit inside. So St. Francis went looking for a larger place to celebrate Mass. And he found the spot. He found a cave like niche in the side of the mountain near the town square. It was “Perfect.” So in this niche within the side of the mountain he placed an altar. And then he was inspired, this cave like niche reminded him of the very first Christmas where our Lord was born in similar circumstance. He said to his brothers, “I want to make a memorial of the Child Jesus who was born in Bethlehem and in some sort behold with our eyes the hardships of His infant state, lying on hay in a manger with the ox and donkey standing by.” And that’s what they did. He found a manger for a crib and filled it with hay. He then found both a donkey and an ox and tied them up next to the crib. There were probably even a few sheep running around. And that’s where the people of Grecchio celebrated Midnight Mass in the year 1223. They celebrated Mass in a stable with a manger in their midst and with the townspeople crowding in and around the animals.
I have homework for everyone here today. During this season of Christmas, which lasts until January 13th (Some even keep up Christmas decorations until February 2nd), spend some time meditating on the nativity of our Lord. Read the Gospel passages, sit before your nativity. Statues and art are a great way to lift the heart, mind, and soul to the realities they represent. And in your meditation put yourself right into the stable and use your senses, what do you see, what do you hear, what do you feel, and what do you smell?
At that first Christmas 2000 years ago, and every day since, God has been making a proposal to us. Through his son Jesus he is saying to each and every one of us: “You give me your humanity, I will give you my divinity. You give me your time, I will give you eternity. You give me your bonds; I will give you my omnipotence. You give me your slavery; I will give you my freedom. You give me your death; I will give you my life. You give me your nothingness; I will give you my all.”
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley