“And now let’s go and celebrate Christmas at the hermitage of Greccio!“
(from Chapter Twelve, The Perfect Joy of Saint Francis, by Felix Timmermans)
On the day before Christmas, deep snow covered the world. The little hermitage of Greccio, which was merely a few huts made of matted rushes, was situated on top of a high rock in a dark oak forest. . . . As night came on, big stars began to shine way, way up above the mountains. The silence and the cold made the starts seem still bigger. Then, here and there in the dark, tiny lights appeared in the valley. Bit by bit the number of lights increased. And they were all coming up the mountainside. It was the people of the valley who, carrying torches and lanterns, were coming to spend Christmas Eve at the hermitage.
Francis had planned a wonderful surprise for them. In the oak grove there was a grotto. And in the grotto the Brothers had arranged a little crib. On one side of the crib there was a live white ox with a pink muzzle and yellow horns, and on the other side a little ass. “It’s like the stable of Bethlehem!” exclaimed the children in awe and admiration. Just above the crib, an altar had been set up for Mass.
Brothers from the other grottoes and hermitages of the region had come too. The children were allowed to stand near the crib, and wide-eyes, they eagerly sought out the Infant Jesus. Their mothers were deeply touched. And the peasants with their flintlike features and eyes flashing like diamonds folded their big dark hands in prayer.
Everybody was gazing devoutly at the little crib, in which there was only some straw. It was biting cold. Their ears throbbed, and the children’s little red noses were running. The light of the torches that had been stuck in crevices in the rocky walls flickered on their faces and danced in their eyes. There was a reverent silence, as everyone was waiting for something wonderful to happen. Then a little bell tinkled. And from behind the altar came a Friar vested for Mass, with Francis serving as deacon.
The Mass began, and everybody knelt down. They all watched Francis. He followed the Mass with the closest attention, but from time to time he looked at the crib and smiled a heavenly smile. At the Gospel, Francis took the Holy Book and sang the verses that told about God becoming a poor Baby in a little stable – the most beautiful story in the world. Tears ran from his sore eyes. Then he fervently kissed the book and went to the crib and stood before it on tiptoe. Stretching out his arms, he gazed at the empty crib and sighed with longing. And he felt a mystical inspiration come over him, as before in Bethlehem. Again he had a vision of the Nativity. And it made his soul melt with tenderness. He felt crushed by an excess of love – flooded and suffused with holy bliss. For the Baby Jesus was lying there before him.
Francis saw him lying in his little crib, a tiny lightsome being. The Babe held out his arms toward him. And Francis bent down, and with his bony fingers he caressed the rose cheeks and curly golden locks. Then very carefully he took up in his arms the radiant little Infant and clasped him to his face, close to his stricken eyes. And the Babe fondled Francis’ tough beard and his pale hollow cheeks.
By a marvelous grace a devout man among those present actually saw the Babe in Francis’ arms. The others saw him too, but only in spirit, not with their eyes. Gently he put the Infant back in the crib and remained half-kneeling beside it, gazing at the Little Jesus and smiling at him. And then Francis began to speak.
From time to time he looked up at the people and into the wondering eyes of the children. He spoke about the beauty and the infinite goodness of the Babe – of God who had become the child of poor human beings. And with his strong, sweet, clear voice, his beautiful voice (as the old chronicles describe it), he spoke slowly and feelingly, as though he were being accompanied by a harp. . . . And every time he said the words “Little Jesus”, the flame of his love coursed through his blood, and he was almost overcome with intense joy. He drawled the word long and clearly, like an organ tone, and then he passed his tongue over his lips in order to taste fully the sweetness and blessing the word had left on them.
The torches shone on the amazed faces of the people. And tears, like beads of light, ran down the cheeks of the children and of the grown-ups.
Perfect Joy: God waltzing over Bethlehem the night his son was born.
- * * *
From The Tree of Life by Bonaventure
At the beginning of the creation of nature, our first parents were placed in paradise; but they were driven out by the severity of God’s decree because they ate of the forbidden tree. From that time his heavenly mercy has not ceased calling straying man back to the way of penance by giving hope of forgiveness and by promising that a Savior would come. Lest such condescension on God’s part should fail to effect our salvation because of ignorance and ingratitude, he never ceased announcing, promising and prefiguring the coming of his Son in the five ages of history, through the patriarchs, judges, priests, kings and prophets, from Abel the Just to John the Baptist. Through many thousands of years, by many marvelous prophecies, he stirred men’s minds to faith and inflamed their hearts with living desires.
Finally, the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4) had come. Just as man was formed from the earth on the sixth day by the power and wisdom of the divine hand, so at the beginning of the sixth age, the Archangel Gabriel was sent to the virgin. When she gave her consent to him, the Holy Spirit came upon her like a divine fire inflaming her soul and sanctifying her flesh in perfect purity. But the power of the most High overshadowed her (Luke 1:35) so that she could endure such fire. By the action of that power, instantly his body was formed, his soul created, and at once both were united to the divinity in the Person of the Son, so that the same Person was God and man, with the properties of each nature maintained.
Oh, if you could feel in some way
the quality and intensity of that fire sent from heaven,
the refreshing coolness that accompanied it,
the consolation it imparted;
if you could realize the great exaltation of the Virgin Mother,
the ennobling of the human race,
the condescension of the divine majesty;
if you could hear the virgin singing with joy;
if you could go with your Lady
into the mountainous region;
if you could see the sweet embrace
of the Virgin and the woman who had been sterile
and hear the greeting
in which the tiny servant recognized his Lord,
the herald his Judge and the voice his Word,
then I am sure you would sing in sweet tones
with the Blessed Virgin
that sacred hymn:
my soul magnifies the Lord,
and with the tiny prophet
you would exalt, rejoice and adore
the marvelous virginal conception!
Under the guidance of divine providence, it happened that Joseph, the Virgin’s husband, took to the town of Bethlehem the young girl of royal descent who was pregnant. When nine months had passed since his conception, the King of Peace like a bridegroom from his bridal chamber (Psalm 19:5), came forth from the virginal womb. He was brought forth into the light without any corruption just as he was conceived without any stain or lust. Although he was great and rich, he became small and poor for us. He chose to be born away from a home in a stable, to be wrapped in swaddling clothes, to be nourished by virginal milk and to lie in a manger between an ox and an ass. Then “there shone upon us a day of new redemption, restoration of the past and eternal happiness. Then throughout the whole world the heavens became honey-sweet.”
Now, then, my soul,
embrace that divine manger;
press your lips upon and kiss the boy’s feet.
Then in your mind
keep the shepherd’s watch,
marvel at the assembling host of angels,
join in the heavenly melody,
singing with your voice and heart:
Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to men of good will.
by Ouida L. Tomlinson, OFS
God bends down to embrace us in Love,
to lift up our nature and all of creation
to invite us into the Dance of the Trinity.
If God bends down in love for us through the
Word incarnate, then we who are “little words”
must bend down in love for one another and
for all creation if the universe is to find its
fullness in Christ.
Perfect Joy: Mary watching God sleep in a feed trough.