The year was 1220, the place was Egypt, shortly after the siege of Damietta. A small nondescript looking man stood before the Sultan arrayed in all his regal finery. The nondescript man was St Francis of Assisi the Sultan was Melek-el-Kamel commander of the Islamic army. St Francis had moved the Sultan deeply, especially when he offered to walk into a fiery furnace with the Sultan’s Imam’s, as a trial by ordeal to prove whose religion was of God and whose was of man. The Imam’s refused, nor did the Sultan insist on the trial, because he felt sure that Francis would be proved right and his conversion to Christianity would, as he explained to Francis, lead to his own assassination. Instead he showered gifts on Francis which he refused, all save one, a passport granting him safe conduct to the holy places which were in enemy hands. When St Francis returned to Italy he built a crib at Greccio in the Rieti Valley in the Christmas of 1223, to fill his fellow county men with the joy he had experienced at Bethlehem. From that Christmas onwards the practice of making cribs at Christmas spread, not just all over Italy, but all over the world to remind the world of the truth that had so dumbfounded St Francis.
The truth was that despite God creating a world for men and women to enjoy whilst awaiting the fullness of joy in heaven, human beings had spent many thousands of years living for themselves. But, undeterred, and it was this that so astonished St Francis, God, nevertheless still wanted to come and live amongst them. That’s why he wept to see the love of God made flesh in a world where selfishness and the sin that this generates prevailed almost everywhere. When the baby ‘grew in wisdom and understanding’( Luke 2:52), it was into a man not just imbued with love, but with the infinite mercy that could alone forgive the moral bankruptcy that prevents his love reaching out and into those who craved for it. When from eternity God loved his Son, and this love was returned in kind, no mercy was needed, for there was no sin to impede it. But when God’s love was directed to human beings, that pure unalloyed love had to be transposed in and through Jesus into Loving Mercy for without mercy and the forgiveness that mercy brings, selfishness and sin would always barricade love out. The Gospel story is the account of the Loving Mercy in action in all that Jesus said and did. He not only practised it himself, but told other to do so too. All his true followers must practise mercy by forgiving, not once or twice but seventy times seven. This forgiveness had not only to be given to family, friends, and neighbours, but to all, and that includes enemies too. It must extend to those who talk about you behind your back, drag your name into the mud and mire of common gossip. It must extend, as it did for the first Christians, to those who imprisoned them, tortured them, and put them to death in so many cruel and degrading ways. Truth to tell, it was this quality of loving forgiveness that the pagan world had never seen before, that was the main reason why the Roman Empire was transformed into a Christian Empire in such a short time.
St Francis was once asked how we know when we have become true Christians? He answered – “By the way you love one another.” But when asked how we can know when we have become perfect Christians, he answered – “By the way you love your enemies.” If you think that this is beyond us then you are right, but it is not beyond Jesus. That’s why he has come, not just to tell us what to do, but to enter into us so that he can do it through us. When we can say as St Paul once said – “I live, no it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20), then nothing is impossible to us, because it is Christ alive and loving again in us, and in all we say and do.
When you kneel before the crib this Christmas you are not just looking at a representation of God’s love made flesh, but at his merciful loving made flesh in Jesus. The arms of the Christ child are open wide, not just inviting us to take him up and into our arms, but to take him into our hearts and minds and souls, so that he may grow within us as we seek his merciful forgiveness, so that there is nothing to prevent him from growing to maturity within us. Then and then alone can we observe the new commandment that Jesus gave us at the Last Supper. It is not just, to love our neighbour as ourselves, that is the old commandment, the New Commandment is that – “You must love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 13:34-35). This is the work of a life time, but it is a work that begins now this Christmas and especially throughout this year of Divine Mercy.