A beloved Christmas tradition in many places is the staging of a living nativity. This practice seems to go back to 1223 when St Francis, out of a desire to see and experience in a tangible way the poverty and suffering that Our Lord entered into at His birth in the flesh, staged one.
The tale is recorded in Thomas of Celano’s First Life (read it here), where Thomas adds vividness to the telling through his use of the historic present. Most translations fail to do this, but the one in my students’ course reader this past term maintained the original tense, which adds to the intensity of the events.
At St. Francis’ bidding, using a real stable with real animals, they staged a Nativity scene. The above-cited translation says of the event, ‘There Simplicity was honored, Poverty exalted, Humility commended; and of Greccio there was made as it were a new Bethlehem.’ These are the virtues of Francis — Simplicity, Poverty, Humility. They are, to use Franciscan terms, Evangelical virtues. They are the virtues Our God espoused when he was born amongst us as a child.
They then, it seems, celebrated the Eucharist, Francis serving in his liturgical role as deacon. Holy Communion is both the typical and highest form of Christian worship. Furthermore, celebrating it at Christmas ties Jesus’ birth to His death and resurrection — highlighting the redemptive nature of the entire Incarnation.
On this Twelfth Day of Christmas, may Jesus fill your hearts with love and light, becoming real to you as He was to Francis.