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The Nativity scene, the recreation in the imagery of the birth of the Infant Jesus, is a staple of Christian tradition around Christmastime. This idea and custom can be attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most influential figures of Christianity, especially the Catholic Church. With a world principally illiterate for most of history, Catholicism has stressed the importance of utilizing the arts to facilitate the understanding of religious doctrine, observance, and praxis.
St. Francis has transformed the Church and many of its policies in ways unknown to a great number of people. The mystic from Assisi, for example, broadened the message of humility after his experience in San Damiano Church where, while praying before the Byzantine Crucifix, Jesus addressed him saying “Francis, go and repair my church.” The need for “repairs” was not for the physical conditions of the cited church and monastery in Assisi, but of the Church itself.
Already deep-rooted in his transformative mystic mission, St. Francis traveled to Rome in 1223, to seek permission from Pope Honorius III to celebrate Christmas in a new manner. The idea was to make something “for the kindling of devotion” in the celebration of the birth of Christ, as St. Bonaventure told us in Life of St. Francis (1263). The 13th-century theologian, philosopher, and author, himself a member of the mendicant order of the Franciscans which St. Francis founded in 1209, has been insightful in relating the connection between the Nativity and the great saint from Assisi. Other authoritative works that concur with St. Bonaventure’s documentation include Father Cuthbert’s Life of St. Francis of Assisi (1912).
Consistent with descriptions found in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew about the birth of the Holy Child, its setting and surrounding circumstances, St. Francis set out to render a genuine representation of the Nativity in Greccio, a small town located about 60 miles north of Rome. This first living recreation contained all the elements of authenticity, a small manger with the Holy Family (the Infant Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and St. Joseph), shepherds, the Three Wise Men who visited the Divine Child shortly after His birth and several barnyard animals.
The Nativity recounting grew exponentially throughout the Christian world. Pope Nicholas IV, the first Franciscan pope, ordered a permanent Nativity scene in Santa Maria Maggiore Church, Rome’s largest shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in 1291. St. Clare of Assisi, a faithful disciple of St. Francis, established it in her convents. The Franciscan friars also propagated this custom well beyond the city walls of Assisi and the Umbrian region. Figurines made of wood, porcelain, clay, as well as paintings and ornaments depicting the Nativity, converted the manger with the Holy Child, the very symbol of Christmas. A new tradition had been ushered in.
It is most fitting that St. Francis had been the one to institute this seminal factor of Christmas into our culture. This humble giant of the Church and humanity has also had a special place in God’s plans for His children. As we celebrate this most special event, may the humility and magnanimous fortitude of St. Francis guide us in maintaining our path ever closer to Him who we owe everything, including the feast of Christmas.
Julio M Shiling, political scientist, writer, director of Patria de Martí and The Cuban American Voice, lecturer and media commentator. A native of Cuba, he currently lives in the United States. Twitter: @JulioMShiling // Julio es politólogo, escritor, director de Patria de Martí y The Cuban American Voice. Conferenciante y comentarista en los medios. Natural de Cuba, vive actualmente en EE UU.