ON THE SITE OF THE WORLD’S FIRST NATIVITY CRECHE – The letter from Greccio

– José Maria C.S. André

St Francis of Assisi went to Greccio for the first time around 1209, in a moment in which the small town was attacked by ferocious wolves that slaughtered herds, destroyed vineyards and even attacked people. The scourge ended when the saint arrived and, above all, there was a profound conversion of the whole city. St Francis used to tell his confreres: “There is no great city in which so many people converted to Our Lord than in this small village.”

The inhabitants of Greccio felt a deep appreciation for St Francis and begged him to stay with them forever. Giovanni Velita, the castellan of the place, became one of Francis’ greatest friends and often visited him in his hut on the mountaintop. Taking into consideration the difficulty of his dear friend Giovanni Velita to climb the mountain, St Francis agreed to move closer to the city.

A few years later, more precisely on November 29, 1223, Pope Honorius III approved the Rule of the Order founded by St Francis. The saint’s bewildering creativity was made evident in the audience with the Pope on that occasion: Francis revealed his dear project of representing the Christmas scene in real size. The trip to the Holy Land had so impressed him, in particular the visit to Bethlehem, that he wanted to reproduce the Bethlehem Crib in Greccio. In fact, he saw a certain resemblance between the slopes of Bethlehem and the mountains of Greccio.

Encouraged by the benevolence of the Pope, Francis returned to Greccio,  decided to carry out the plan. He immediately summoned his friend Giovanni Velita to find a cave similar to that of Bethlehem, with a real donkey and an ox. Alticama, Giovanni’s wife, prepared with her own hands the image of the Child. After 15 days of intense work, the crib was completed. The ancient chronicle says that, after tiredness, “came the day of joy, the time of exultation!”

Francis sent heralds throughout the region to summon the inhabitants. Numerous friars came from various places. That holy Christmas night of 1223, the crowd walks in a pious procession toward the cave. Francis, full of excitement, speaks about God made Man and reclined in a manger. He is moved by that divine poverty and the tenderness of Jesus for us; he takes the baby and kisses him, dances with him on his lap. Whether it was a miracle or the devotion of the people, the ancient chronicle says that the baby that Francisco tenderly tightened to his chest was alive and that a beautiful baby actually slept in the straws of the manger that night.

This scene, which took place almost 800 years ago, is repeated today on the five continents in cribs of all sorts of styles and sizes, inviting us to contemplate Jesus Christ.

Two thousand years ago, the Angels announced to the shepherds of the Bethlehem region that they would find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger, and the shepherds rushed to contemplate Him. To give us a model to imitate, St Luke points out that they went running and, after seeing Him, returned filled with joy and glorified God for what they had seen and heard.

If only Christians let themselves be surprised by the poverty of Christmas, if they ran a little more and understood the divine strategy of the crib…

Last Sunday, December 1, Pope Francis went to Greccio to pray at the place where St Francis set up the first crib. He had already gone there in 2016, on a trip that was only known later. This time, the journey was announced and had a special feature: the Pope signed, in the shrine of Greccio a letter, addressed to the whole Christian people, about the meaning of the crib.

In 2016, Pope Francis made an unannounced visit to the shrine of Greccio.

Exterior of Greccio’s shrine.

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