In 1223, in Greccio, Italy, Saint Francis of Assisi established the tradition of reenacting the birth of Jesus in the most graphic and realistic manner. This custom has survived to the present time.
Inside the Covers of the Book
Saint Francis and the Nativity, by Myrna A. Strasser, an American broadcaster and teacher, skillfully blends history and fiction into a delightful story. The rich colours of the illustrations have been likened to stained glass windows. The illustrator, Fausto Bianchi, lives in Northern Italy. His familiarity with the Umbrian area of Italy gives authenticity to the images.
Mario, a young shepherd boy, is asked to take some food into town to Brother Francis who is preaching in Greccio that day. Mario is introduced to the saint, and the two find that they share an interest in animals.
Mario is intrigued when Francis tells him that Jesus loves him as much, if not more, than Mario loves his favourite lamb. He cannot understand how this can be.
Brother Francis realizes that he needs to have a more realistic and visual means to help people understand his preaching of the Gospel. He says he wants to present the Christmas story as a nativity play. To do this, he will need permission from the Pope because it is a new innovation. He must go to Rome.
Francis asks Mario to care for his animals while he is away. At the same time, he tells Mario, it would help if he could think of a place where the nativity play could be performed.
While Francis is away, Mario observes how his own actions of protecting and caring for the animals mirror the way Jesus protects and cares for him.
One day, Mario’s favourite lamb goes missing. Eventually, Mario finds it in a large grotto. It occurs to him that this would be a good place to perform the nativity play.
Having obtained permission from the Pope, Francis returns to Greccio. When he sees the grotto, he says to Mario, “This spot is simple and humble, but it feels as if something important could take place here. It’s perfect.”
The Miraculous Conclusion
Fausto Bianchi’s illustration of the people thronging to the grotto is the crowning glory of the book. It is almost possible to hear the music of the bagpipes some men are playing, the bleating of the goat, the shouts of children who climb to the illuminated cave to see the miracle reenacted.
The story ends with Brother Francis telling the story of the birth of Jesus, with Mario sharing the moment when Francis lays the figure of the baby in the straw-filled manger. Mario says a prayer of thanksgiving.
The book ends with two pages of activities families may wish to share. For example, they may want to follow the Bible quotes to tell the Christmas story. Or perhaps they’ll make a creche out of gingerbread. The author suggests eight such activities.
This book would be a welcome Christmas gift for any Christian family.