In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi, a deacon, was in Greccio, Italy for Christmas. He had recently visited the Holy Land, and wanted to inspire devotion in the villagers, and himself, for midnight Mass. We don’t know exactly how the Nativity scene was set up, but St. Bonaventure records the scene in this way:
“It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.”
St. Bonaventure then adds that St. Francis was seen holding the tiny baby Christ Child, and that many miracles occurred after the Mass: “…and the hay of that manger, being preserved by the people, miraculously cured all diseases of cattle, and many other pestilences.”
The Nativity scene spread quickly and was lauded by all, including the first Franciscan Pope, Nicholas IV, who in 1291 commissioned statues for the Basilica of St. Mary Major to create the first permanent Nativity scene.
The Vatican just debuted this year’s Christmas tree and Nativity scene a few days ago. You can see it here. Consider setting up a meaningful Nativity scene this Christmas in your home, and take some quiet time this season to meditate, and encourage your family members to meditate, on the beautiful mystery of God made man, come to save us!