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Saint Francis: The Nativity Scene in Greccio

Giancarlo Pani SJ - Tue, Dec 19th 2023

Saint Francis: The Nativity Scene in Greccio

The Franciscan Family is commemorating the 800th anniversary of the death of St. Francis with a celebration spanning four years. It began by recalling the final approval of the Rule by Honorius III in 1223. Attention then turned to the celebration of Christmas at Greccio. The year 2024 sees the commemoration of the Stigmata, while 2025 will be dedicated to the Canticle of Brother Sun and 2026 to the Transitus.

Here we would like to recall the origin of the Greccio nativity scene, which, while not being – as many would have it – the first construction of a nativity scene, nevertheless is very important in the history of popular piety.


The contrada of Greccio

In 1223, in the district of Greccio, returning perhaps from Rome, where he had been received by Honorius III for confirmation of the Rule, Francis wanted to commemorate the birth of Jesus. A few years earlier he had been in the Holy Land, where he had experienced the environment in which Jesus was born and lived. Also in Rome he may have visited the Oratory dedicated to the Nativity in St Mary Major.[1] In the caves and valleys of Rieti he found an atmosphere apt to recreate the environment of Bethlehem. The feast of the Nativity was for Francis the “Feast of feasts, the day when God, made a little infant, suckled at a human breast.”[2] Therefore, more than all other solemnities, “he celebrated with ineffable solemnity the Christmas of the Child Jesus.”[3]

The oldest primary source is found in the Vita beati Francisci by Thomas of Celano, which appeared just a few months after Francis’ canonization in July 1228. Two years had passed since the saint’s death, and the account is very little removed from the event, celebrated five years earlier on the night of December 25, 1223. Such an “account of the celebration of Christmas apud castrum quod Grecium dicitur is one of the highlights of the Vita beati Francisci. It is, in every respect, the original work of Thomas of Celano.”[4]

The episode has a brief but solemn introduction, which reveals Francis’ intention: “To observe perfectly and always the holy Gospel and to follow faithfully with all vigilance, with all commitment, with all the impetus of the soul and the fervor of the heart the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and to imitate his footsteps. He continually meditated on his words and with keenest attention never lost sight of his works. But above all, the humility of the incarnation and the charity of the passion had imprinted themselves so deeply in his memory that he hardly wanted to think of anything else.”[5]

Incarnation and Passion

The Greccio Christmas story is not a simple narrative, nor is it a tale meant to move, but an affirmation of the primacy of the Gospel, reflecting “the humility of the incarnation and the charity of the passion.” Francis unites in Christmas the mystery of the Son of God taking on our human flesh with his passion, death and resurrection. The Nativity – as Giovanni Miccoli writes – reveals the profound meaning of the cross: “The Incarnation finds its fulfillment in Easter: in the supper, with the offering of bread and wine – which perpetuates, in the form of the sacrament, until the end of time – the passion and death, with the complete submission of the Son to the will of the Father. […] The ‘cross’ is the sign and symbol of that complete submission, and the point of arrival, together, of the ‘logic’ that had guided the incarnation. The incarnation in short is the premise, not only temporal but also logical, of the cross.”[6] It is no coincidence that the following episode in the biography of Thomas of Celano is the gift of the stigmata.[7]

Christmas in Greccio

About 15 days before Christmas 1223 Francis wrote to a friend of his named John, from the district of Greccio. Francis indicated that his friend was very dear to him “because, although he was noble and much honored in his region, he esteemed more the nobility of the spirit than that of the flesh.”[8] He explained his intention, “If you want us to celebrate in Greccio the coming feast of the Lord, precede me and prepare what I tell you: I would like to make remembrance of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, and somehow glimpse with the eyes of the body the hardships in which he found himself for lack of the things necessary to an infant, how he was laid in a manger and how he lay on the hay between the ox and the donkey.”[9] The friend prepared everything according to the saint’s instructions.

The request highlights an aspect of Francis’ character, one who loves to be practical and wants to teach what is the essential thing about Christmas: the Child is born in Bethlehem for our salvation and in conditions of extreme poverty; he lacks the necessities of life, he is placed in a manger, on hay, between the ox and the donkey. Francis does not like theoretical discourses or abstract reasoning, but wants to sensitively touch the heart and life of the believer. The detail underscores the physicality of the event: to have the believer “glimpse with the eyes of the body” the hardships of the Lord being born, the poverty of that birth. “Thus is brought into focus a typical insight of Francis, who sees radical poverty in the incarnation, expressed even outwardly in the poverty of the birth.”[10]

The solemn Christmas vigil

The account of the solemn Christmas vigil follows. The people of Greccio flocked from different quarters, the friars from their hermitages; all went joyfully to the meeting place, carrying torches and candles, so as to make bright “that night which illumined with its sparkling star all days and times.”[11]

When he arrives, Francis notices that everything has been prepared according to the instructions given: “He is radiant with gladness. The crib is set up, the hay is placed there, and the ox and donkey are introduced. In that moving scene evangelical simplicity shines forth, poverty is exalted, humility is praised. Greccio has become like a new Bethlehem.”[12] Thomas of Celano uses the term praesepium, that is, manger, crib,[13] where hay is placed for the animals: the manger thus becomes the altar on which the Eucharist is celebrated, with the ox and donkey beside it to make its reality even clearer.

Francis sings the Gospel, “because he was a deacon.”[14] Thomas emphasizes the joy and enthusiasm with which he proclaims the word of God: “He sings with a sonorous voice the holy Gospel; that loud and sweet, clear and sonorous voice is an invitation for all to think of the supreme reward. Then he speaks to the people and in the sweetest words evokes the newborn poor King and the little town of Bethlehem.”[15] He places emphasis on the poverty of the King who was born, and on Bethlehem, which is a very small town: poverty, littleness, and humiliation are the themes dear to the Saint and his spirituality. We seem to catch the emotions emerging from Francis’ soul.

There follow some details so personal that they testify to the truth of the matter and reveal Francis’ spontaneity: they really correspond to his character and heart. “Often, when he wished to identify Christ by the name of “Jesus,” inflamed with immense love, he called him “the Child of Bethlehem,” and that name “Bethlehem” he pronounced like the bleating of a sheep, filling his mouth with the sound and even more with tender affection. And whenever he said “Child of Bethlehem” or “Jesus,” he would pass his tongue over his lips, as if tasting and swallowing all the sweetness of those words.”[16]

Francis does not merely sing the Gospel of the nativity, but he lives and rejoices in it, through a dramatic ability of his own in enacting the Gospel page, because he is persuaded that in this way the word of God can be better understood and internalized.

At the conclusion of the narrative, this internalization is almost signified by the vision of one of those present, who sees in the manger a small child who wakes up and revives when the saint approaches and awakens him. It is the sign of the Lord’s resurrection which, through Francis’ action, revives in his soul and in the souls of all those present: “This vision [did] not differ from reality because, by his grace acting through his holy servant Francis, the infant Jesus was raised in the hearts of many, who had forgotten him, and was deeply impressed in their loving memory.”[17]

After the solemn Christmas vigil is over, the participants return to their homes filled with joy for having experienced Christmas in Bethlehem in faith and sacrament.

The memory of Christmas concludes – as is customary in medieval tales – with some prodigious events. Thomas of Celano narrates that the hay from the manger was preserved and cured animals of disease, brought relief to those giving birth, and healed many people. Later an altar is built over the manger and a church is built on the site in honor of St. Francis, “so that there where animals once ate hay, now men may eat, for the health of soul and body, the flesh of the ‘spotless and undefiled Lamb Christ Jesus our Lord,’ who with infinite and ineffable love gave himself for us.”[18]

Francis’ Christmas

Thomas of Celano says that by representing the nativity of Jesus in a living way, Francis transformed Greccio into a new Bethlehem; the priest who celebrated Mass and the people who attended go away happy and joyful: they have relived the Lord’s Christmas.

An image of the nativity scene that conforms to our tradition does not emerge from the account of Thomas. No baby in the manger, no characters to fill the role of Mary and Joseph, or the shepherds; Francis’ intent is to bring to life a real encounter with the Lord. The essence of the nativity scene is the Eucharistic celebration, because the Eucharist and the Incarnation signify the same reality: God becomes man and humbles himself so that man may be saved. The incarnation is his humiliation: it reveals his poverty, it indicates his becoming nothing that saves us. Christmas is our salvation.

What Francis wants to represent is also clear from one of his Admonitions regarding the Eucharist: “Behold, every day he humbles himself, as when ‘from the royal seat’ he descended into the Virgin’s womb; every day he himself comes to us in humble appearance; every day he descends from the bosom of the Father on to the altar in the hands of the priest.”[19] For the saint, the Eucharist is the Lord Jesus who in every celebration is incarnated in our history and in our lives; and at the same time it is a clear invitation to follow him, to welcome him, to receive in humility and have the courage to strip oneself of everything; only those who are truly poor have a free heart to welcome the Lord.

In his Letter to the whole Order, Francis proclaims again, “All humanity trembles, the whole universe trembles, and heaven rejoices, when on the altar, in the hand of the priest, is present ‘Christ, the Son of the living God.’ […] O sublime humility! O humble sublimity, that the Lord of the universe, God and Son of God, should so humble Himself as to hide Himself, for our salvation, under the humble appearance of bread! Behold, brethren, the humility of God, and open before him your hearts, humble yourselves also, that you may be exalted by him. Therefore hold back nothing of yourselves, that all and in full you may be received by Him who offers Himself totally to you.”[20]

God’s humiliation in hiding in the bread embraces the whole world. It is a total gift of love that is translated for us into the terms of total deprivation, of true “dispossession.” Nothing is really ours, because only in this way can we be received by the one who offers himself to us totally.

The crib-altar

Francis therefore wanted to bring the Gospel to life. After all, it should not be forgotten that the foundational biblical text of Christmas is Luke’s, where the only mention of a place for the birth is the “manger”: “[Mary] 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).

The manger has now become an altar, and on the altar the Eucharist is celebrated: where the animals ate hay, now the Eucharistic bread is eaten, the Christ who in the incarnation became bread for us.

The humiliation of the manger also reflects Jesus’ poverty. For Francis, the poverty of Christmas is the brightest sign of the Incarnation, because “He, ‘who was rich’ above all else, wanted to choose poverty in this world, together with the Blessed Virgin, His mother.”[21]

The Greccio representation also highlights what could be called – in the language of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises – the application of the senses: seeing with the eyes of the body, looking at the light of the candles and torches that illuminate the most beautiful night of the year, hearing the songs and psalms; and then the sense of touch in the mention of the awakened child, that of taste through Francis’ lips and his joy in singing the Gospel. This is an invitation to celebrate in the feast the beauty of the Lord who comes to us in humiliation to place himself on our level and welcome us.

Finally, the importance of memory is found in the representation of the Gospel: memory is not just remembering, but actualizing, the making alive and present of the Gospel. The risk of forgetting is part of our world, which seems to have a short memory: ease, superficiality, haste, the inability to achieve inner silence, the whirlwind of daily life risk us losing the memory of what in life is essential. Francis wanted to make the mystery of Christmas alive.

A ‘geopolitical’ Christmas

A final observation. Bringing a page of the Gospel to life and the emphasis on the small town of Bethlehem also have an underlying meaning that may relate to the crusade issue: Francis had gone to the Holy Land in 1219, perhaps following Pope Honorius III’s reinforcements. He had no anti-crusade position, but there, in Egypt, at Damietta, a kind of conversion took place. In the midst of military operations, he, “having come to our army, kindled by the zeal of faith, had no fear of taking himself into the midst of the army of our enemies, and for many days had preached the word of God to the Saracens, but without much fruit.”[22] However, Francis had managed to meet in person with Sultan Malik al-Kãmil: “The Sultan, the king of Egypt, begged him, in secret, to plead for him with the Lord so that, by divine inspiration, he might adhere to that religion which pleased God most.”[23]

In the episode of the Greccio Christmas, Francis says something important about the political problem of the crusades and the conquest of the holy places: “As pointed out many times, particularly by Franco Cardini and Chiara Frugoni, there is the surpassing of the crusade, that is, of the need to have the Holy Land in Christian hands; Bethlehem is wherever Christ is born in the hearts of men; it is not only a ‘political’ fact, it is a different understanding of the holy places and an overcoming of their geographical reality. In another way La Verna, with the stigmata, will come to embody spiritually Calvary itself.”[24]

At that time it was difficult, and later it would become even more difficult, to be able to travel to the East. It was therefore necessary to reallocate, in some way, the holy places, to place them wherever a community of the faithful was motivated to encounter the Lord. Therein lies the genius of the Greccio nativity scene.

That Francis was a man of peace is clear from many episodes, but such a “dislocation” of holy places says something more about the problem of peace: his experience following the crusade leads him to the rejection of war not only because of its consequences, but above all in order to witness to the Gospel with his life. In the Unapproved Rule he urges the brothers to consider “friends all those who unjustly inflict on us tribulation and distress, shame and insult, pain and suffering, martyrdom and death.”[25] It is in this perspective that one can see the good relations established by the Franciscans with the Muslims when later, in the 14th century, they were allowed to celebrate the liturgy in the Holy Sepulcher and the Upper Room; and then having responsibility for the Custody of the Holy Land, which is still the case.[26]

The first to claim that St. Francis was “the inventor of the nativity scene” seems to have been Franciscan Juan Fancisco Nuño, who lived in Rome, in the hermitage of Ara Coeli. In 1581, after speaking about Christmas at Greccio, the friar commented, “This miracle aroused such fame that in Italy the nativity scene is represented not only in our convents, but also in other churches, and especially here in Rome they enact it in Santa Maria di Ara Coeli, the primary convent in Italy.”[27]

We have an older testimony to this, dating back to St. Clare. At her canonization process, which took place in November 1253, the year of her death, two witnesses tell of a marvelous event: a vision she had on Christmas night in 1252. Since, due to severe infirmity, Clare could not get out of bed to go to the chapel, the sisters left her alone to celebrate Matins. Then the saint prayed to the Lord, and had a vision in which she heard the organ and the Office of the friars of the church of St. Francis and saw the “crib” that had been set up there: “Our Lady Clare, on that night of the Nativity of the Lord, also saw el presepio del Signore nostro Iesu Cristo.”[28]

Then the nativity scene in churches remained on display throughout the year, an ever-present sign of God’s humanity near us, a custom still alive in some churches.

A beautiful family tradition

In his apostolic letter Admirabile Signum Pope Francis notes that the representation of the Nativity is “a beautiful family tradition. […] The Nativity scene is like a living Gospel, rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture. As we contemplate the Christmas story, we are invited to set out on a spiritual journey, drawn by the humility of the God who became man in order to encounter every man and woman.”[29] St. Francis, in the Greccio celebration, accomplished “a great work of evangelization.”[30] In the simplicity of an easily understandable visual language, he was able to communicate the Gospel message. While it is true that the nativity tradition seems to be waning today, the pope encourages us to sustain and rediscover it.

Setting up the nativity scene in our homes is an aid to reliving the Gospel of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem; above all, as St. Francis taught us, it “invites us to ‘feel’ and ‘touch’ the poverty that the Son of God chose for himself in his Incarnation. […] it summons us to follow him along the path of humility, poverty and self-denial that leads from the manger of Bethlehem to the cross. It asks us to meet him and serve him by showing mercy to those of our brothers and sisters (cf. Matt 25:31-43).”[31]

The Saint’s originality – as mentioned above – was to invent a “Eucharistic crib.” “Hay” becomes the first bed of the One who will be revealed as “the bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:41). This was a symbolism that St. Augustine, along with other fathers, had already grasped when he wrote, ‘Lying in a manger, He became our food’.”[32] St. Francis wanted a real encounter with the Lord Jesus, because the ultimate meaning of the poverty of the manger, the ox and the donkey, the proclamation of the Gospel, and the new Bethlehem come together in the Eucharist. Francis cared deeply about the incarnation-Eucharist connection. Jesus who is born and laid in a manger becomes “bread” in order to be reborn in us and give us life: it is no accident that in Hebrew “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread” and in Arabic “House of Flesh.”

Becoming bread and meat indicates a vocation for us: the believer is called to become bread and food for his brothers and sisters, especially for the poorest, the little ones, the marginalized, the foreigners, the lonely, the sick, the abandoned. The gift of self and openness to others are the way to human and Christian fulfillment. The crib indicates what is important: in the celebration of the crib there is what is essential, the life that is reborn, even if it lacks all that is necessary for a newborn baby. Above all, there is the joy – as was reported of Francis and the faithful at the Greccio manger – that, immediately afterwards, the angel will reveal to the shepherds: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people!” (Luke 2:10), the joy of our salvation. Finally, silence should not be forgotten: everything is silent on the holy night so that we can listen and observe the omnipotence of God who becomes a child, an infant, a poor man to be reborn in us.

A 17th-century mystic, Angelus Silesius, wrote: “If a thousand times Christ were born in Bethlehem / but not in you / you are lost forever.”[33]


[1].      In 1291, the oratory was restored by Arnolfo da Cambio with the famous crib. The date commemorates the year in which the fortress of Acre, the last bastion of the Crusaders in the Holy Land, was captured. Since then, as it was almost impossible to make the pilgrimage, the crib of St. Mary Major took on the role of a holy place commemorating Christmas, so much so that the Basilica was called the “Second Bethlehem.”

[2].      Thomas of Celano, Memoriale nel desiderio dell’anima, in Fonti Francescane (= FF), Padua, Edizioni Francescane, 2011, 787 (this number does not indicate the page, but the paragraph, according to the progressive marginal numbering of the Sources).

[3].      Ibid.

[4].      J. Delarun, “Il Natale di Greccio: una sinfonia pastorale”, in Frate Francesco 89 (2023) 21.

[5].      Thomas of Celano, Memoriale…, op. cit., 466-467; here and hereafter we follow the version of the Fonti Francescane (Franciscan Sources), with some adjustments from the translation of C. Vaiani, Natale con Francesco d’Assisi, Milan, Edizioni Terra Santa, 2010, 8f.

[6].      G. Miccoli, Francesco d’Assisi. Realtà e memoria di un’esperienza cristiana, Turin, Einaudi, 1991, 57.

[7].      Cf. Thomas of Celano, Memoriale…, op. cit., 484-486.

[8].      Ibid., 468.

[9].      Ibid. It should be noted that the place is not exactly specified, but apud castrum quod Grecium dicitur.

[10].    C. Vaiani, Natale con Francesco…, op. cit., 19.

[11].    Thomas of Celano, Memoriale..., op. cit., 469.

[12].    Ibid.

[13].    Etymologically praesepium, from pre and saepire, meaning to surround with a shelter, means the manger, the crib, surrounded by an enclosure; therefore it can also designate a stable or shelter for animals.

[14].    Thomas of Celano, Memoriale..., op. cit., 470.

[15].    Ibid.

[16].    Ibid.

[17].    Ibid.

[18].    Ibid., 471. The biblical reference is to 1 Pet 1:19.

[19].    Admonition I, 16-18, in FF 144. For “the royal seat,” cf. Wis 18:15.

[20].    St. Francis, Letter to the Whole Order, 26-29, in FF 221. The quotations are from John 11:27 and Psalm 61:9.

[21]. Id., Letter to the Faithful, 5, in FF 182. Cf. the reference to 2 Cor 8:9.

[22].    Testimony of James of Vitry, “Lettera del 1220 sulla presa di Damiata”, in FF 2212.

[23].    Ibid. Cf. R. Manselli, San Francesco, Rome, Bulzoni, 1980, 225.

[24].    A. Marini, Francesco d’Assisi, il mercante del regno, Rome, Carocci, 2015, 172f.; cf. F. Cardini, Nella presenza del soldan superba. Saggi francescani, Spoleto, Fondazione Centro italiano sull’Alto Medioevo, 2009, 41-91; C. Frugoni, Vita di un uomo. Francis of Assisi, Turin, Einaudi, 1995, 114.

[25].    Unapproved Rule XXII, 3-4, in FF 56.

[26].    Cf. A. Marini, Francesco d’Assisi…, op. cit., 134.

[27].    C. van Hulst, “Natale, natività, Greccio, presepio”, in E. Caroli, entry “Spiritualità”, in Dizionario francescano, Padua, Messaggero, 1995, 1224.

[28].    Processo di canonizzazione di Santa Chiara, in FF 3014.

[29].    Francis, Admirabile Signum, December 1, 2019, No. 1.

[30].    Ibid., No. 3.

[31].    Ibid.

[32].    Ibid., No. 2. Cf. Augustine of Hippo, Sermo 184:4; PL 38, 1006.

[33].    A. Silesius, Il pellegrino cherubico, Florence, Libreria Editrice Fiorentina, 1927, 14.

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