The First Christmas Creche (Origin of the Manger Scene): St. Francis of Assisi & Devotion to the Nativity of Jesus

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Especially during the Advent and Christmas seasons, nothing sets the Christian heart on fire with love of God more than contemplating the eternal Creator of the universe lying in a feeding trough in a Bethlehem cave. I learned this devotion primarily from one of my favorite Saints, St. Francis of Assisi. I hope that these brief reflections from his words and his life will inspire you as well.

St. Francis of Assisi is one of those Saints who is grossly misrepresented and misunderstood in our day. Most people seem to think of St. Francis as he is depicted in garden statues, and that is all: just a nice guy, smiling, and talking to birds. Though he did love to praise God as seen in the beauty of his creation, the true St. Francis was much deeper and more intense than that popular image portrays. He chose to live in absolute evangelical poverty, and through that, Jesus rebuilt and saved the Church which was at the time falling into ruin. Francis founded the Order that has produced more canonized Saints than any other. He bore the wounds of Christ miraculously imprinted in his body (the stigmata) and he wept so much over the Crucified that he nearly went blind. The man wore his body out so harshly with fasting and penances that he died in his early forties, naked and stretched out in the shape of a cross on the floor of the poor little church of Our Lady of the Angels: the church which he had rebuilt with his own hands, and where he had started his Order, entrusting it to her patronage.

That intense personal and communal poverty in which he was inspired to live and to die was chosen by St. Francis for five main reasons: 1) because he discerned it to be the will of God for him through prayer, Providence, and reading Scripture; 2) to give people the opportunity to practice charity toward “the least of [Christ’s] brethren”1 (also the name he gave his order: the Fratres Minori), and thus gain Heaven, according to the words of Christ; 3) to rely completely and radically on God and his Providence; 4) to attempt to follow the example of Christ and his followers, as well as Christ’s Gospel commands and invitations regarding poverty; and 5) in order to return love for Love, giving his whole self—without reserve or attachment—to the God Who gave Himself entirely to him with such beautiful humility and generosity. This last reason is seen with the utmost splendor in the Crucified, naked and despoiled on the cross, and in the birth of our Lord in the stable of Bethlehem. These are the two scenes that most inspired the Saint, and he meditated upon them day and night.

Few people are aware that St. Francis started the tradition of the Christmas creche. In 1223, he arranged the scene for midnight Mass where he was to preach as deacon about the birth of Jesus. There, the Christ Child appeared in the manger the Saint had prepared and filled with straw, and Francis held and adored Him, bathed in tears. This was attested to by an eyewitness and recorded by St. Bonaventure, in his Life of St. Francis, written in 1260. But that devotion did not just sprout out of nowhere for the occasion; St. Francis had held that scene before his eyes almost incessantly, meditating on the poverty and humility of Christ and of Mary, and on the great Love that had inspired it.

On the poverty of Jesus and Mary, Francis wrote, “He, being rich,2 more so than all creation put together, wanted nevertheless, along with His most Blessed Mother, to choose poverty.”3 Thus, in his Last Will, he devoutly summarized his way of life: “I, friar Francis, the little one, want to follow the life and poverty of the Most High, our Lord Jesus Christ, and of His most holy Mother and to persevere in this unto the end.”4 Showing how profoundly the Saint was struck by the poverty of Our Lord and Our Lady on the first Christmas night, his first biographer, Thomas of Celano, wrote the following:

“He [Francis] couldn’t think of the exceeding dearth in which the poor Virgin found herself on that day [Christmas] without weeping. One time, while he was seated at dinner, a friar reminded him of the poverty of the Blessed Virgin and the indigence of Christ, her Son. Immediately, he rose up from the table, burst into sorrowful sobs, and with his face wet with tears, he ate the rest of his bread upon the bare ground.

It was for this reason that he called poverty “the royal virtue”: because it shone with such splendor in the King and in the Queen.”5

Let us follow in the footsteps of St. Francis this day. Let us meditate upon the great humility and generous love of our God, “incarnate of the Virgin Mary,”6 born, and laid “in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”7 With hearts bursting with gratitude and awe, let us welcome the Christ Child warmly into the inn of our hearts this year, to be born there each day. With our family’s love, let us swaddle —in thought, affection, word, and action—that God Who so loved us.8

“Look, brothers, at the humility of God and open your hearts before Him.9 Humble yourselves, you also, so that you may be exalted by Him.10 Keep nothing of yourselves for yourselves, therefore: that He may receive you whole and entire, He Who offers Himself entirely to you.”(St. Francis)11

Glory to God in the Highest!12

  1. Mt 25:40.
  2. 2 Cor 8:9.
  3. Letter to All the Faithful. Translation is original by the author, from the Italian of St. Francis.
  4. Last Will, written to St. Clare. Translation is original by the author, from the Italian of St. Francis.
  5. 2 Celano, 200. Translation is original by the author, from the Italian.
  6. Nicene Creed.
  7. Jn 3:16
  8. Lk 2:7.
  9. Ps 61:9.
  10. 1 Pt  5:6.
  11. Letter to the Entire Order. Translation is original by the author, from the Italian of St. Francis.
  12. Lk 2:14.

Article and Translations by Stephen Snyder, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Image: The Holy Family with Saint Francis by Jacob van Oost.