Some two thousand and twenty-three years ago, a Star appearing on the firmament showed three wise men from the East the way to the stable at Bethlehem, where was born the Prince of Peace, the King of eternal glory! A thousand and two hundred and twenty-three years later, a physical, dramatic representation of that stable event showed the way of life, so to speak, to the people of the little town of Greccio in Assisi! Christmas 2023 thus marks the 800th Anniversary of that First Christmas Crib in human history.
The love of Christianity’s favorite saint for Jesus Christ, Francis d’Assisi, was said to be so intense that his sentiments of devotion to the Stable-born babe of Bethlehem and the Crucified Christ of Calvary were amply rewarded by the Lord: the fond presence of the newborn infant in Francis’ arms at Christmas 1223 and the Stigmata of Jesus’ wounds on Francis’ body on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 14 September 1224! That in effect sums up the Gospel-life of the alter Christus, i.e., ‘another Christ’, this most Christ-like of men since Christ showing us through the Crib the direction out of the morass we find our country and the world in!
About Bethlehem, the Reverend Philips Brooks wrote in his 1868 Christmas Carol:
“…in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.”
Some six centuries earlier, Francis, disillusioned with the greed and materialism throttling the society of his time, had already seen the light in the darkness and endeavored to act urgently. A dreamer and a dramatist at heart, the idea of recreating the nativity scene flashed across his mind rather forcefully. That flash gave him the direction needed to change the mindset of the people of the town of Greccio.
He promptly sought out João Velita who some years earlier had donated land for the construction of the first Franciscan monastery. Having fallen under the spell of Francis, João, renouncing all worldly honours, was trying to live a life imitating that of Francis as closely as he could as a Third Order Franciscan. Francis convincingly explained to him his flash idea: the setting up of the Manger scene in a cave, complete with ass, ox, and hay et al., with a representation of the Christ-child lying in a manger.
Artistry to the fore!
Come Christmas Eve 1223, Francis and João artistically re-created in a cave high up in Greccio what was to become the forerunner of the physical representation of that Holy Bethlehem Night down the ages and the subject of burgeoning art. More importantly, it offered direction to the people in terms of a rejuvenation of faith and morals. Moved by the sight of the villagers and friars crowding around illuminating the night with blazing torches and lighted candles for the Christmas Midnight Mass that followed, Francis, a Deacon by choice out of humility, delivered a stirring Homily like no other preacher ever. His biographer and fellow friar, Thomas of Celano, writes: “The saint of God stood before the manger, uttering sighs, overcome with love and filled with a wonderful happiness….He sang the Gospel in a sonorous voice, a clear and sonorous voice, inviting all to the highest rewards. Then he preached to the people standing about and spoke charming words concerning the birth of the poor King, and the little town of Bethlehem….When he spoke the name ‘Child of Bethlehem’ or ‘Jesus,’ his tongue licked his lips, relishing and savouring with pleased palate the sweetness of the words.” And in that setting, the kingly infant whose statue he cradled in his loving arms was seen to “come alive” even if for just a few fleeting moments!
This rare initiative, seeming perhaps strange to some, is said to have brought alive the scenery, symbolizing the poverty and simplicity associated with Christ’s birth, and to have greatly benefited numerous souls. To this day, the Crib offers directions to reorient our lives by having us take a closer look at the kind of poverty the Lord of Creation endured at birth in a place barely fit for animals. A modern-day saint named Blessed James Alberione SSP says: “Our hearts, minds and will turn with much desire to the grotto at Bethlehem,” where “Jesus is laid in a manger amid utter poverty. Let us esteem the virtue of poverty and ask it of Jesus and Mary,” and, “through the intercession of Mary, let us have great hope in the Child Jesus!"
Directions emanating from the Crib
If Francis’ purpose in immortalizing the Nativity setting was to direct the gaze of the world from worldliness to God-centeredness, that laudable initiative challenges us even more today. Are we burdened with a feeling of helplessness in our situations of difficulty and uncertainty? Do we, like headless chickens, find ourselves, whether as individuals or as a family or community, living aimless and directionless, not knowing which way to turn for solace and guidance amidst life’s perplexities? Then absorbingly taking in the Nativity scene with an open mind and heart could just be the answer. Are we concerned about the rising contradictions of wealth and poverty in the modern world? We need to look no further; the Christmas Crib offers a challenge in terms of poverty! Do we find ourselves at loggerheads, whether in our neighborhoods, our country, or between countries? Then, be it Manipur or Myanmar, Ukraine or Russia, Afghanistan or Israel or Gaza, the humbleness and helplessness of the Stable beckons us to divert our attention from selfishness to righteousness, from possessions to selflessness, from greed to generosity, and so on.
The fact is, while the Crib is a pointer to the multifariousness of the Nativity, the Christ-birth event is itself an invitation to look on the one hand, inwards, and on the other, beyond the mundaneness of daily living. And how! By allowing the numerous aspects of the Christmas story to percolate into our senses like never before! Christ was born in Bethlehem, the “House of Bread," laid in a Manger, a place or trough for cattle feed (cf old French mangier = "to eat" / Latin mandere = "to chew") to be food for the hungry of every strata, and finally immortalized at the Last Supper Table as everlasting food and drink for every believer.
Implications galore for India and the world
The stable of Bethlehem invites us to allow the least of the animals, viz the ass, the ox and the sheep, not forgetting the shepherds of course, to direct our lives by way of making simplicity and humility our garb, keeping us firmly rooted in terra firma. It goads us on to conscientiously seek the direction the Magi sought for an encounter with the source of life, thereafter avoiding and sidetracking the Herods and Pilates, whose very lives, rooted in their brazen greed for power and fame, lead to nowhere.
The Christian Community in India, having made its mark on practically every aspect of public life, from education to business to the armed forces, has long receded into the shadows, virtually having lost its sense of direction. The Crib invites us to ponder awhile at the Star as it shines its brilliance on the Christ-child, as it did in the case of the Magi, there to absorb the deeper significance of the power they shared with Him. Indeed, if truth is emphasized, given the situation prevailing across the country and the globe today, understanding Christmas as directing every aspect of our lives as Christians will alone give our families and our community the much-needed direction towards orderliness in life.
That in effect will be enough boost for us to enable society, our country and the world to change track and seek the good so vital to facing the right direction—the direction of peace, progress and prosperity—the essential characteristics of Christ, Christmas, Christians and Christianity!
Radio Veritas Asia (RVA), a media platform of the Catholic Church, aims to share Christ. RVA started in 1969 as a continental Catholic radio station to serve Asian countries in their respective local language, thus earning the tag “the Voice of Asian Christianity.” Responding to the emerging context, RVA embraced media platforms to connect with the global Asian audience via its 21 language websites and various social media platforms.