At Christmas, Nativity scenes are everywhere. In our churches, in our homes, even on our front lawns. It’s a reminder of the promise of the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
The first Nativity scene in recorded history occurred 800 years ago on Christmas Eve 1223 in Greccio in central Italy. A day’s walk from Assisi, St. Francis chose Greccio for the first Nativity scene due to its similarity to Bethlehem. St. Bonaventure described the first Nativity scene when he wrote his biography of St. Francis around 1260:
“(St. Francis) had a crib prepared, with hay and an ox and an ass. The friars were all invited and the people came in crowds. The forest re-echoed with their voices and the night was lit up with a multitude of bright lights, while the beautiful music of God’s praises added to the solemnity.”
St. Bonaventure, Major Life of St. Francis, 7
As he preached on Christmas Eve, Francis would refer to the baby Jesus as the Child of Bethlehem. In the darkness of winter, the people celebrated with light and song the incarnation of our savior in Bethlehem. Just as Greccio stood in for Bethlehem in 1223, today, we can see and experience Bethlehem in our parishes and even our homes with a visual reminder of Christ’s birth.
To mark the 800th anniversary of the first Nativity at Greccio, the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph held the first of what is hoped to be an annual festival of lessons and carols, titled Capuchin Christmas, at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Milwaukee. The music reflected the diversity of the Church in Milwaukee, including Gospel, 19th-century European carols and music performed by the Capuchin friars, including a rendition of Silent Night sung in English, German, Vietnamese, French and Spanish.
In Detroit, the Solanus Casey Center held a similar festival at St. Bonaventure Chapel. Just as in the town of Greccio, light and song heralded the incarnation of the Child of Bethlehem, pointing the way to the Cross and our salvation.
“There simplicity was honored, poverty was exalted, humility was commended, and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem.”
Thomas of Celano, The First Life of St. Francis, 85