Thursday, December 23, 2010

Greccio, the Creche, the Eucharist

(From: The Spirit of Secular Franciscan Life Newsletter for Secular Franciscans - Assumption BVM Province December 2010 - No. 30, edited by Fr. Roch Nieman, OFM, Provincial Spiritual Assistant.. Taken from an article by Fr. Charles Finnegan, OFM entitled: “Lest We Forget: Christmas Is a Year-long Incarnation.”)

Christmas scene carved into the mountainside at Greccio

St. Francis of Assisi is often credited with giving us "the first Christmas Crib." While his devotion to the Christmas mystery no doubt influenced our modern custom of arranging Nativity scenes in our churches and homes at Christmas, what Francis did at Greccio was different. There were no statues or images of Mary, Joseph or the Babe, only the ox and ass. What Francis "invented" at Greccio was the “Eucharistic manger." The manger was the altar. Eucharistic bread and wine were placed over that manger, not an image of the Infant. Two great mysteries, the Incarnation and the Eucharist, were visibly shown to be intimately connected.
Although there was a “vision” of a lifeless babe coming alive in the hands of Francis, all the biographers (Thomas of Celano, St. Bonaventure and Julien of Speyer) report the same: an empty manger but a child waking up in the hands of Francis. Francis notes this close association between Bethlehem and the Eucharist in his writings. In his “First Admonition.” He writes: "See daily He humbles Himself as when He came from the royal throne into the womb of the Virgin; daily He comes to us in humble form; daily He comes down from the bosom of the Father upon the altar,” just as shepherds brought gifts to the altar, the most important being the gift of themselves.

The faith of St. Francis, who often said “I see nothing bodily of the Most High Son of God in this world except His most holy body and blood,” should be the inspiration and pattern of their Eucharistic life.

Speaking of this gift, St. Francis wrote: "Hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves so that He who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally”. The very word "Christmas" reminds us that the great Christmas celebration is the Eucharistic liturgy celebrating the Lord’s birth. The word "Bethlehem" means "House of bread" and for Francis, Christmas was above all else the coming of Him who is “the bread of life” and “the living bread come down from heaven.”

Francis knew well that Christmas is for children, children of all ages. Thomas of Celano, Francis’s first biographer, wrote: “At Greccio Francis became a child with the Child." Only the little ones can come before the Crib full of awe and simple joy, "lost in wonder" at the marvel of it all. Only the little ones can celebrate with purity of heart the feast of the littleness of God. Only the humble can recognize the awesome power of this littleness. Clarence Jordan, originator of the “Cotton Patch Version of the Gospel” liked to say: “God moved in with us.” He became what we are, to make us what He is. He took on our humanity so He could show us God’s love, and in exchange gave us a share in His divinity so we could live forever. The liturgy calls this “a marvelous exchange.”

At Christmas we sing and pray: “A Savior has been born to you” (Luke 2:11). This wonder (this Bethlehem) takes place every day upon the altar…Francis grasped that truth and awakened that mystery for us. This is what transpired in the cave at Greccio: an altar, an empty manger, and Jesus comes to earth once again.

The Eucharist is the center of the life of the Church. Christ unites us to Himself and to one another as a single body in it. Therefore, the Eucharist should be the center of the life of the fraternity. The brothers and sisters should participate in the Eucharist as frequently as possible, being mindful of the respect and love shown by Francis, who, in the Eucharist, lived all the mysteries of the life of Christ.

Pax et bonum

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