Imagine for a moment that we are not gathered here in this church. Rather we are outside in the cold night air, not in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in the 21st century, but in the hills of the Italian countryside in the 13th century. We are following a religious man, a preacher who wants us to see something special, and we are hiking behind him on a mountain trail, heading up into the hills. Our way is lit with torches and candles, and we are bundled up to stay warm as we walk. Finally, we arrive at our destination: a niche in the side of the cliff that forms a cave of sorts. There we see that our preacher has prepared straw, where a few farm animals lie and graze. A crib made out of rough wood sits in the middle. As we approach the spot, this preacher begins to sing a song, reciting a story, one that is set in a manger like the one we see before us. It is the story of a child’s birth, and as he speaks, we can see that he is overcome with emotion, almost at the point of tears, full of joy and peace. So tenderly does he describe the child that we notice how he does not even dare to say his name, but calls him only “il Bambino di Betlemme” – “the Babe of Bethlehem.” As he preaches about the birth of this child, some of us even think perhaps that we can see him, a heavenly figure, weak and small and yet radiating a heavenly light.
You can open your eyes. That, more or less, is the account of how Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene in the mountain town of Greccio in December of 1223. What we are used to seeing, usually as figurines on our mantles or lawns, was originally a live action reenactment. Having journeyed to the Holy Land a few years before, St. Francis had visited the spot where Christ had been born. To give the people of Greccio a deeper understanding of the birth in Bethlehem, Francis re-created it, staging the manger scene, chanting the story of the birth from the Book of the Gospels, with such power and reverence and love that some saw the Christ Child there in their midst.
Stories and events have a way of coming alive when we enact them, when we experience them as they might have happened. St. Francis knew that to reenact the birth of Jesus for his flock in Greccio would be much more powerful than an exercise in mere imagination. But what, ultimately, was Francis wanting to demonstrate? Surely, the people that trekked up to the mountain cave knew what they were going to see; they knew what event they were going to commemorate. In much the same way, we have come here this evening aware of what this holiday celebrates. Why, then, have we come? Surely not to find out a what. We know that already – the birth of a child. Rather, we have come for the same reason that the people of Greccio followed Francis up into the hills on a cold winter night – to understand a why, to comprehend the meaning of the Christmas story in a new way. We know the details of the birth in Bethlehem. What we sometimes need is a reminder of its significance.
Nativity with the Torch (c. 1635), the Le Nain brothers
Each year, the Church approaches the story of Jesus’s nativity in four different ways, one for each of the four Masses that can be celebrated at Christmas. In the vigil Mass, we hear the Gospel story of the angel reassuring Joseph to not be afraid to take Mary into his home, for it is by the power of God that she will be the mother of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. In the Mass During the Night, commonly celebrated at midnight, the Gospel speaks of the angels appearing to the shepherds in the fields, bearing the news of Jesus’s birth to them and proclaiming the glory of God. In the Mass at Dawn, the Gospel says that the shepherds, having received these tidings of great joy, resolve to make their way to Bethlehem to see the Christ Child for themselves. Finally, in the Mass during Christmas Day, we hear from the Gospel of John, a reading perhaps at once the strangest and also the most fitting for Christmas, the one that explains the true meaning of all of the others: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.”
What Francis of Assisi tried to show in the hills above Greccio, what our readings seek to describe, what we have come to celebrate in the church this evening is that this birth in Bethlehem was of no ordinary child – rather, it was the breaking forth of the divine into the human, the dawning of the promised Son of God to his people. This humble birth – poor really, by any measure – is nothing less than the remaking of the world, the union of heaven and earth in this little child. In Jesus, God has taken to himself our reality and, in doing so, forever changed it. God has, in effect, married us – with all of our warts, in all of our sinfulness – to redeem our humanity and let it share in his divinity. He has done this, glory be to Him, through this little child. This Babe of Bethlehem is "God with us," God in the flesh, and the one through whom God will at last accomplish his purpose – none other than to go to the Cross, to put to death our sin and dysfunction once and for all, and forever reclaim us, raising us from “Forsaken” to “My Delight,” from “Desolate” to “Espoused”.
This birth in Bethlehem is not merely a spectacle to behold or a theological reality to ponder. It’s also an invitation – to ponder whether we believe this reality, and if so, whether we have shaped our life around it. God wants us to adore his Son’s birth, not just with lip service, with a brief prayer or remembrance, or with our backsides in a pew for an hour on Christmas. He wants us to open our hearts in love and welcome – to let Christ be born within us in as true of a way as he was born in the manger. God almighty, who enters our human reality to shatter the darkness of death and sin and lift us into eternity, cannot by himself enter into our hearts; he can do that only if we permit him. The humble child born in the stable is an invitation to love, and to be loved, by the God made Man.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “There are two births of Christ, one unto the world in Bethlehem, the other in the soul when it is spiritually reborn.” It is this inward coming that Jesus most fully desires. Indeed, it is the reason for his coming altogether. If all Christmas is for us is another event on the calendar, a holiday to be marked and then to move past, then we have missed entirely the meaning of this birth, this “Bambino di Betlemme”. He awaits us, even now, at the door of our hearts, asking if there is room enough for him to be born anew.
My friends, some time tonight or tomorrow, when you are with family and friends, pause for a few moments from the feasting and the gift-giving and the merrymaking. Close your eyes, and imagine once again. This time, journey not to Greccio, but to the real manger scene in Bethlehem. See there in a humble stable the Holy Family, and in the crib itself, the Christ Child himself. You have come to see him, but he has come for you – to die for you, willingly, joyfully, to raise your humanity to share in his divinity. As you approach, stoop down to him; drop to your knees. He looks at you, the Lord of heaven and earth made a humble Babe. Feel his peace; encounter the joy that only he can give, that he desires to give you all year round. It is a joy like a flame – one which cannot be snuffed out, but which shines brightly in the dark, radiating its warmth and light. The Babe of Bethlehem is born for you. All he desires from you is everything. And he gives Everything in return.