It was for Christmas in the year 1223 that St. Francis brought together people with animals to form the first recorded representation of the birth of Christ.
Francis used the gospels of Luke & Matthew as the script for his play, and the locals formed the cast.
The idea of an annual enactment of the events of the birth of Christ stuck and now homes and churches, city malls, town squares and Christmas parades feature Mary & Joseph with their new-born child Jesus, surrounded by a few animals, with visiting shepherds and Magi.
Last week Pope Francis met with a group of amateur actors who staged an 800th anniversary Living Nativity encouraging us all to remember why he [St. Francis] thought it important enough to celebrate.
The pope reflected that the saint wanted us “to understand its [the nativity’s] meaning, so as not to reduce it to a mere folkloric fact. [St] Francis wanted to represent in life the birth of Jesus to inspire, in friars and in the people, emotion and tenderness towards the mystery of God born of Mary in a stable and laid in a manger. He wanted to give substance to the representation: not a painting, not statues, but people in flesh and blood, in order to highlight the reality of the incarnation. So, the first thought I leave to you is this: the purpose of the living Nativity scene is to reawaken wonder in the heart, before the mystery of God who became a child.”
The Pope reminded us that a living nativity is an engagement with the total reality of life in every aspect of human life on earth. While we might think of a nativity play as a happy event or a representation of nativity in art as a peaceful scene, the reality is that even the town of Jesus birth is fraught with conflict today:
“The second thought is for our brothers and sisters of Bethlehem, Bethlehem today. And naturally this extends to all the inhabitants of the land where Jesus was born, lived, died and rose again. We know the situation, caused by the war, the consequence of a conflict that has lasted for decades. So your performance must be lived in solidarity with these brothers and sisters who are suffering a great deal. For them, it promises to be a Christmas of suffering, of mourning, without pilgrims, without celebrations. We do not want to leave them alone. Let us be close to them with prayer, with concrete aid and also with your living Nativity, which reminds everyone of how the suffering of Bethlehem is an open wound for the Middle East and for the entire world. This Christmas let us think, let us think about the Holy Land.”
So what about us today, celebrating Christmas?
While the Christmas message doesn’t change my life is constantly in motion and each year I have renewed need for personal and present experience of Jesus who is God is with us, here and now, living and breathing. loving, forgiving and saving.
We are not alone.
Here is a grace you might like to use at your Christmas meal this year.
A Grace before Christmas Dinner
One of the more senior people
at the dinner begins saying:
Before we share this Christmas meal together,
Let us take a moment of silent prayer
to give God thanks
for all the blessings we have received this year
and for the burdens we bear, shared and personal.
A moment of silent reflection follows
Then the leader continues
Let us remember those
we have shared Christmas with in past years,
those who have died,
and also those who are not able to be with us today
because of distance and illness and Covid restrictions.
Let us now share aloud
the names of those we especially wish to remember.
Those at table take a moment
to share the names of those
they wish to remember.
When the names have been shared
a candle is lit in the centre of the table
(perhaps by one of the children).
Then the leader prays
May the light of this candle
lead us to Christ
who overcomes every darkness.
And for what we receive in this meal,
the food, drink, and family and friendship,
let us be deeply grateful.
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