"St. Francis and the First Nativity Scene"
December 13, 2023, 6:00 AM

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:7

Nativity scenes have once again sprung up all over town. Some re-creations are in front of churches and stores, some in front of homes, some beneath Christmas trees, and many more grace the hearths and shelves inside of homes. There are even live performances punctuating the Christmas season. Nativity scenes seem to be the decorative ornament upon which Christmas lies.

The nativity, however, had much greater significance for St. Francis. Christmas for him was the highlight of the church calendar – even more important than Easter, since this was the entrance of God in human form into the world. Everything the world had hoped for came into being with this entrance. Overcome by the awe of God’s holiness, St. Francis attempted to express Christ’s grand entrance in a visible way.

St. Francis challenged the routine rituals of the church before electric lights, before heated cathedrals, and before rites of the church were spoken in a language that lay people could comprehend. He began to proclaim the gospel to the world through nature and drama in 1223 by staging what has been called the First Nativity Scene (or Crèche). This Christmas 2023 celebrates the 800th anniversary of the First Nativity Scene.

The only historical account of this first nativity scene comes from The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan monk who was born five years before St. Francis’ death. According to Bonaventure’s biography, St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorius III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene, while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.”

St. Francis’ display was in the middle of a period when mystery or miracle plays were a popular form of entertainment and education for lay people in Europe. These plays were performed in churches and later in town squares. Miracle plays outside the church were a way for lay people to learn the stories of scripture through vernacular language, since church services at the time were performed only in Latin (which virtually no one understood). Francis’ nativity scene used a similar visual display to assist local people in understanding and engaging the birth of Christ.

Nativity scenes spread throughout Europe within a few centuries of St. Francis’ initial display. It’s unclear from Bonaventure’s account whether St. Francis subsequently used people or figures to stand-in for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, or if the spectators just used their imagination. However, later nativity scenes around the world eventually came to include a full cast of characters, often including entire villages of people, and even less recognized and marginalized figures found today (such as caganers in Catalonia Spain).


St. Francis used the re-creation of the manger scene to contemplate the profound realness of the Incarnation. The actual event was based in simplicity, poverty, and the humility of the Son of God giving himself for us. Through the Incarnation, God became one of us – our brother and sister. Christ eliminated any distance that separated us from God and each other.


We are invited this Advent and Christmas to think about the place that God occupies in our own hearts. Even more, we are asked whether or not we have a place in our hearts for those with whom Jesus wanted to be identified. As Jesus said, “I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:40)


By his Incarnation, Christ calls us to be close to our brothers and sisters in greatest need, to welcome them, to touch them with mercy, and to “feel” and “touch” the poverty that God’s Son took upon himself.


May you spend time this season contemplating the depth of God’s love for you and those who are yet to be called your brother and sister.


Prayers and Blessings,


Fr. John