On Christmas Eve 1223, in a small Umbrian church, Francis of Assisi celebrated midnight Mass and established the practice of exhibiting a crèche or presepio, reminding all who would come to the manger that Jesus had a humble birth. The attributes of Francis, chronicled by his biographer Bonaventure, parallel those of the Christ child: humility, compassion, and a spirit of poverty. Referred to as the “second Christ” by Pope Pius XI, Francis’ life was a true imitation of the life of Christ.
From Material Comfort to Poverty
Born Giovanni di Bernardone in 1181, Francis experienced a comfortable life as the son of a wealthy Assisi merchant. His hopes and dreams were much like others born into similar wealth and prestige. He left Assisi to fight in a war but returned with profound inner yearnings that led him through a spiritual journey at the end of which he rejected the norms associated with his social class.
Francis soon came to know the Jesus of that first Christmas in Bethlehem. Through visions and prayers, Francis stove to follow God’s call to rebuild His church. It was a time of conflict and crisis, of crusades and heretics. There was great wealth and great poverty and the institutions of the time offered little hope of security and direction.
Little wonder Francis attracted others seeking a deeper understanding of the Christian experience, from a mere handful to many thousands over the course of the first years of his ministry. Above all, Francis stressed poverty. Preaching that first midnight Mass in 1223, Francis referred to the “birth of the poor King.”
Poverty, Humility, and Compassion
The Rule of Francis was nothing less than the Gospels: “If any one wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up the cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16.24) The imitation of Christ rested on the human attributes of Jesus. Many times the Gospels record that Jesus had compassion for the crowds that followed him and sought answers for their own inadequacies.
All of these attributes were evident at the birth of Jesus and this was highlighted by Francis. Jesus was born in a humble setting among stable animals. His first visitors were humble shepherds. The Magi or kings that followed the Bethlehem star demonstrated the superiority of poverty and humility over wealth and power.
The Marks of Jesus
Nine months after preaching the midnight Mass, Francis received a glorious vision of Christ while on a solitary retreat. It was here that he received the marks of Christ, the first person to be granted the stigmata. Even with this singular gift, Francis was humble. His life reflected those attributes Christians associate most with during the Christmas season: poverty, humility, and compassion for those with needs.
The great medieval pope, Innocent III, formally approved the order of St. Francis after a dream in which Francis was holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Francis would rebuild the church but not with bricks and mortar.
The Saint for Christmas and Beyond
Christians celebrate Christmas with gifts to each other as well as to the poor. Compassion invokes charity, given in the spirit of humility. Even Francis’ call to poverty reminds Christians that excess is gluttony. Francis’ example is a tacit reminder that just as Jesus was fully God, he was also fully man and herein lays the challenge to follow the life of the Son of God who identifies with creation and has compassion for it.
Francis would remind us that the Christmas crèche is not seasonal, but is a constant call to those attributes that gather together the lost and abandoned and secure them in happiness and joy. The prayer of St. Francis reflects his own humble simplicity: “Make me an instrument of your peace…”