Institution of the Crib at Greccio
Giotto di Bondone, Basilica di San Francesco, Circo, 1300

St. Francis of Assisi is a beloved and well-known saint throughout the world and is remembered for igniting the tradition of Nativity scenes.

Francis (Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone) was born in either 1181 or 1182 in Assisi, Italy. He founded the Franciscan Order of Friar Minors and Sisterslived the Gospels in obedience to the Churchtraveled in peace to the Middle East during the crusades, saw God in everyone and everything, received the Stigmata of Christ Crucified, inspired countless people in his lifetime, helps us weather the storms in our lives, and continues to inspire us as leaders today. He died on October 3 (my birthday), 1226 in Assisi, Italy.

He is the patron saint of animals and ecology, and he’s honored in the Roman Catholic, Anglican (including Episcopal), and Lutheran Churches on October 4 (my daughter’s birthday). St. Francis is the patron saint of Italy (along with St. Catherine of Siena) and other places throughout the world. Many parishes celebrate his feast day with a Blessing of the Animals on October 4 or the Sunday before or after.

About three years after his return from the Middle East, Francis left the hermitage near Rieti and traveled to Greccio in December 1223. He probably traveled by boat.

In preparation as deacon of the Christmas Midnight Mass, Francis obtained permission from the sovereign pontiff to prepare a living nativity scene (presepio in Italian) as he was much inspired by his visit to the holy lands.

He asked his friend and former soldier, John of Greccio, to help him create a grotto modeled on Bethlehem with a straw-filled manger, an ox, and a donkey. This grotto was either placed inside the church near the altar, or the service was held outside near a real cave because the church was too small for all the people. The manger was either empty or contained an image or icon of the baby Jesus.

On Christmas Eve, the townspeople gathered for the service with their torch lights or candles to look upon the scene. First the friars sang the Vigils of the Nativity, next Francis sang or chanted the Christmas Eve Gospel passage, and then he began to preach.

So overcome with emotion, he could not speak the name of the Lord, calling him instead “Babe of Bethlehem.” In the pronunciation of these words, many in attendance heard the bleating of sheep around the manger. He spoke of the poor King, the Son of God born in the flesh as a helpless infant in a stable with farm animals. Francis saw the entire life of God Incarnate in the precious gift of the Baby Jesus. He cried tears of devotion, piety, joy, and gratitude.

According to John of Greccio, Francis approached the empty manger and then Baby Jesus appeared, or the icon of the Christ Child that had been placed there came to life. Francis embraced the sleeping baby and held Him up for all to see.

As witnesses to this blessed miracle, many townspeople took pieces of the manger straw home as relics. Further miracles were reported as pieces of the straw were fed to sick farm animals who recovered. Women in labor touched with pieces of that straw had easy deliveries.

Years later, after the canonization of St. Francis, an altar in his honor was placed on the site of the Greccio manger.

To this day, Christians display nativity scenes or crèches, or take part in living nativity scenes or Christmas pageants. We can thank St. Francis of Assisi for helping us see the true meaning of Christmas each year.

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For the sake of accuracy, I combined the two main versions of this event. But I find that it doesn’t matter which version is the most accurate as the story is the same in each.

This plays out in modern times as well. At one church, the Christmas pageant is beautifully performed with gorgeous costumes and well-rehearsed children looking out at the congregation over the baby Jesus doll in the manger. It makes a lovely picture either for our memories or our cameras.

At another church, the Christmas pageant is a bit less disciplined — period costumes are mixed with superhero and circus animal costumes, and the children are allowed a little self-expression in their performances. But they don’t think about that. They think about the real baby girl playing the role of Jesus. With their backs to the congregation, they gaze at her. They ask her mom questions about the sweet baby looking up at them. They certainly won’t turn around for a photo. And so, we put our cameras down and realize that once again the children have it right and focus our own attention on the Babe of Bethlehem.

My favorite version of the story of St. Francis and the first Living Nativity Scene is in the movie CLARE AND FRANCES. The event takes place as Francis travels home from the Middle East. He and his fellow friar, Brother Illuminato, do not make it home to Assisi in time for Christmas. They stop in Greccio because the village reminds Francis of Bethlehem. Francis’s creation of the Nativity Scene appears spontaneous as he arranges the animals of an indulgent farmer. Next, he places a young husband and wife behind the manger to play the role of Mary and Joseph. He says, “The ox, the donkey, and the manger. We have everything.”

Illuminato asks, “And the baby? Where’s the baby?”

“We have one, Illuminato.”  Francis looks up with clasped hands, “We already have the Baby.”

I see great value in this lesson from St. Francis who saw the crucified Christ in the Baby Jesus and vise versa for all eternity. One and the same, similar to when parents look at their grown children and see the baby they once held in their arms. God gave us the gift of his Son in human form, a beautiful baby who would grow to spread His Word and then die for our sins on the Cross. As we honor and celebrate His blessed birth, we can’t help but think of His death — miracles both and a gift to each and every one of us.

During a little pilgrimage to the North End of Boston, MA, in December 2012, I took this photo at the Peace Garden of St. Leonard’s Church. St. Leonard’s is the first Roman Catholic Church in New England built by Italian Immigrants. Franciscan brothers are responsible for the church while Franciscan sisters run the nearby school.

(St. Leonard of Port Maurice was a Franciscan friar, born in 1676 and died in 1751. Called “The Apostle of the Way of the Cross,” he was a teacher of seminarians and a preacher. He’s honored in the Roman Catholic Church with a feast day on November 27.)

Behind the crèche is a statue of St. Anthony of Padua holding the Christ Child. In his own words he explains why:

The fruit of the bee is the Son of the Virgin. Blessed is the fruit of thy womb (Luke 1:42), it says; and Canticles 2:3, His fruit was sweet to my palate. This fruit is sweet in its beginning, middle and end. It was sweet in the womb, sweet in the crib, sweet in the temple, sweet in Egypt, sweet in his Baptism, sweet in the desert, sweet in the word, sweet in miracles, sweet on the ass, sweet in the scourging, sweet on the Cross, sweet in the tomb, sweet in hell, and sweet in heaven. O sweet Jesus, what is more sweet than you are? — ST. ANTHONY’S SERMONS

In another sermon he wrote:

Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son; and his name shall be called Emmanuel. (Is. 7:14) that is God-with-us. God made himself a little child for us; he was born for us. There are many reasons why Christ is called a little child: and for briefness’ sake here is just one: If you hurt a child, make him cry, but then show him a kindness, give him a flower, a rose, or some other object he likes, instantly he forgets the hurt you did him, his anger is gone and he runs to embrace you. Thus it is with Christ. If you have offended him by a mortal sin or wounded him by some fault, but you offer him the flower of contrition or the rose of a tearful confession, at once he forgets your offense, he forgives your sin, and he runs to take you in his arms and gives you his kiss of peace. — ST. ANTHONY’S SERMONS

St. Anthony, influenced by the teachings of St. Francis, had taken to to heart the words of St. Paul who wrote that Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! — Philippians 2:6-8

In fact, St. Francis’s entire attitude, works, and spirituality were based on these words. Franciscan brothers and sisters devote themselves to appreciation of this gift and model their life and works on the Way of Jesus Christ.

Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. — Collect, HOLY WOMEN, HOLY MEN: CELEBRATING THE SAINTS

St. Francis loved Christmas and as strict as he was with himself regarding fasting, he feasted with the same rigor and celebrated with exuberance. Once when a brother referred to Christmas day as Friday, a day of fasting, St. Francis exclaimed, “Even the walls should feast on Christmas day!”

What would I serve St. Francis and the Holy Family on Christmas morning? Pancakes. Why? Because my dad tells a story of his father’s first morning in America when he was served pancakes with butter and maple syrup. With one taste, he realized he made the right decision to come to this country which had such delicious food.


1 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

¼ cup brown sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

2 eggs

2 cups milk

1/3 cup melted butter

Combine dry ingredients in a bowl.

Beat the eggs in another bowl. Add milk and butter. Mix well.

Pour into dry ingredients. Stir until just blended.

Pour batter by ¼ cupfuls onto a greased hot griddle, flip when
bubbles form on top of pancakes.

Cook until second side is golden brown. Serve hot with plenty of butter and maple syrup.

Makes about twenty.

Options:  Mix a cup of blueberries or other fruit into the batter. As always, substitute ingredients as needed due to dietary requirements.

Bonus Material:

My father and daughter, Christmas 2012

(Originally posted on 1/3/2013 to Saints and Recipes on Blogger.)

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