A friend took me to a Christmas dinner at a local pub noted for its good food. It was also noted for something else too that nearly forced me into a fight. I am referring to its seasonal cider punch, served hot with a sprinkling of spices. It was so moreish that you couldn’t help having more and more of it. Two locals had already had too much of it before I had my first glass. By the time I had my second glass they were already fighting – but fortunately not with their fists. One said that Charles Dickens was more responsible for the way we celebrate Christmas today than anyone else. The other insisted that it was Prince Albert who introduced the Christmas tree with all its decorations. I don’t drink much, in fact hardly at all, so two glasses of punch were enough to get me going, so I insisted that they were both wrong. Then I started to hold forth on St Francis of Assisi and what he had done to bring Christ back, not just into Christmas, but into Christianity. They both exchanged glances and ordered two more glasses of punch. They had obviously taken me for the new trendy vicar who had come to convert the unchurched in their local watering hole. Of course they didn’t listen to a word I said and disappeared to play darts long before I got into my stride, so I thought you might listen instead, at least you are sober!
That St Francis put Christ back into Christmas is one thing, but it is quite another thing to suggest that he put Christ back into Christianity. How could anyone have taken him out of Christianity? Christ is both true man and true God, so anyone who suggests that he was just a man and no more, would be taking him out of Christianity, true Christianity. The first person to do this in a big way was a Berber priest from North Africa called Arius. He started to spread his heresy in Alexandria where he set up his headquarters at the beginning of the fourth century. It was called Arianism, after its founder, and it spread like lightning, and so like lightning the Church had to condemn his teaching by coining a slogan that would resound all over Christendom and all down the centuries. The slogan was ‘Christ is God’, ‘Christ is God’, ‘Christ is God’. The slogan was so successful that the humanity of Christ, while never denied, was underplayed, if not forgotten, as the divinity of Christ received most of the attention in subsequent centuries. Even some of the greatest Christian writers called Christ God, and God Christ, without feeling it necessary to explain the difference.
Then something happened a hundred years before St Francis was born that would change him and the rest of Christendom down to the present day. The whole of Europe had been inspired with what was presented to the faithful as a noble Christian cause – to go and win back the Holy Land from the ‘infidels’ who had been treating the Christians who had lived there for centuries before being conquered by Islam, with unacceptable brutality. Encouraged by the Church, people from every walk of life set out for the East, sovereigns and serfs, troops and troubadours, prelates and prostitutes, indeed the whole of Europe was brought to a fever pitch of excitement that is difficult to imagine a thousand years later. I’m not going to defend some of the behaviour of the Crusaders but in opening up the Holy Land to pilgrims over eight hundred years ago they set the scene for a new dawn in Christian Spirituality in the twelfth century. It brought back the person of Jesus Christ and placed him at the heart and centre of Christian spirituality where he belonged.
By the time St Francis was growing up, the family fireside, the taverns and the marketplaces as well as the courts of the nobility were places where tales were told and re-told of where the Word was made flesh and ‘dwelt amongst us’. Pilgrims loved to tell of how they had seen the very spot where Jesus had been born, where he walked and talked, where he died on the cross and where he was buried. No wonder it was one of the deepest desires of Francis to go to the Holy Land himself. Nor was it surprising that when he came back he wanted to burn into the hearts of all, something of the fire that had set him alight with the love of Jesus who had chosen to come amongst us as a helpless baby on the first Christmas Day. That is why he built for himself and his fellow countrymen a crib on the hillside above Greccio, high up in the Rieti Valley. It was here that he invited everyone to join him in a celebration of Jesus’ birth that would stain their memories with an experience that would inspire them for a lifetime. The cribs that found their way into every Christian home from that time onwards symbolised the re-birth of Jesus Christ at the heart and centre of Christian spirituality, through the inspirational genius of the poor man of Assisi.
But the love that led St Francis to go to the Holy Land and then to build the first crib had first been experienced by St Francis many years before as he prayed before what we now know as the Franciscan Crucifix. In his day the Cross hung in the tumbledown little Church of San Damiano just outside Assisi.
When St Bonaventure wrote about the incident that took place there, he not only tells us that Francis heard the words of Christ telling him to rebuild his Church, but he tells us that he experienced Christ’s love too. The experience so overwhelmed him that he lost consciousness as he was caught up in a profound ecstasy. It is one thing to believe with your mind that Jesus Christ is alive, bursting with creative energy and life, but it is quite another thing to experience his love enveloping your heart and soul with such intensity that you are temporarily taken out of your senses. What happened as he prayed before that Cross gave Francis the strength to abandon his life to Christ. In the years that followed he allowed this love to transform him in such a way that he was able to bring back Christ once more, placing him at the heart and centre of Christian spirituality. The first crib built by him inspired future generations down to the present day But he did not just call people to remember the Christ who had once lived in the past, but to open themselves to receive the Risen Christ who is living and loving now in the present. The way he did this was by firstly beginning with himself. If the love of God was continually pouring itself out through Jesus on to all who would receive it, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, then he had to be there to receive it. That is why he spent hours in prayer each day, sometimes in the church or in the friary in one of the little cells made of wattle and daub, or in a cave or crevice in the rocks on the mountainside for weeks on end. Sometimes he prayed with his face hidden from sight in his hood he pulled down over his face as he travelled from one place to another.
This is where he learnt the prayer without ceasing that enabled him to love without ceasing the One who first spoke to him in the little church of San Damiano. It was this love that gradually enabled him to enter into the mind and heart of God to see in a new and unique way profound mystical truths that had never been seen in quite the same way before. It was in order to try and imprint these truths on the minds and heart of others that he built the first crib in a little hamlet called Greccio in the Rieti Valley in 1223. For nearly eight hundred years the Christmas message has been captured in cribs built all over Christendom following the example given by St Francis. They teach the profound meaning of the Incarnation in a way that all can understand from the smallest child to the most intelligent theologian. But nobody before or since has so penetrated the profound mysteries symbolised by the Christmas Crib like St Francis of Assisi.
When I re-visit our local watering hole I hope my argumentative friends will be able to see that it was someone far more important than Charles Dickens or Prince Albert who made Christmas what it always was and what it always should be.
David Torkington’s book ‘Wisdom from Franciscan Italy‘ has never received less than five star reviews on Amazon. It can be recommended as a must read over the Christmas holiday to see the central mysteries of our faith as never seen in quite the same way before.