As this parish and many homes are putting up the nativity scenes, it is helpful to reflect upon the origin and purpose of this devotion. Christians have used images of the nativity from the beginning, with some of this artwork recently discovered in the Catacombs. However, the idea of a more realistic nativity scene began with St. Francis in 1223.
In his time, the nativity scenes tended to be very elaborate with much finery, which was not much in keeping with the Franciscan spirit of noble simplicity. And so, a year after St. Francis visited the Holy Land, he and some of his religious brothers decided to celebrate Christmas as the Holy Family and shepherds did.
To accomplish this plan, they planned a live nativity scene in a cave near Greccio, in the mountains of Italy. And they tried to make the scene more real by involving common people as actors, wearing regular clothes, dealing with cold weather, and even using real farm animals. St. Francis and his brothers wanted to have a sense of being with Jesus and the Holy Family in that manger long ago and to feel His love for us, expressed in His humble willingness to join our condition and unite our lives and His.
A few days before Christmas, St. Francis told people about these plans, thinking that some of them might make the difficult journey on Christmas Eve. Instead, when Christmas Eve arrived, thousands of pilgrims travelled through the snow and descended on the scene, with many reporting that they experienced Christmas joy at the deepest level of their lives.
The idea of a live nativity scene caught on quickly and Pope Honorius III (1216-1227) soon gave his approval. Within a century, the idea of living nativity scenes became popular throughout Western Europe. Because it was difficult to get live people and animals into a church or home, statues would often replace the live figures.
But the purpose is the same, helping us to sense the true meaning of Christmas, that in Jesus Christ, God came among us in our daily lives and especially with the poor and those who struggle. As Professor William Cook of the State University of New York said in his lectures on great Christians, St. Francis “made Greccio into Bethlehem. Of course, if Greccio can become Bethlehem, any place can become Bethlehem.”