There is no pandemic or crisis that could ever dim the lights of Christmas. In our homes and in our churches we have already set up Christmas trees, hanged wreaths and even constructed the Nativity Scene. These wonderful symbols of Christmas bring hope and joy to all — not just the young, but also to the young at heart. These symbols of Christmas provide us with comfort and hope; however, we should move beyond these symbols to the real meaning of Christmas, “Jesus Christ, Our Savior, was born.”

In 1223 St. Francis of Assisi, a deacon, was visiting the town of Greccio, a small town located between Rome and Assisi. St. Francis realized that the chapel in Greccio would be too small for the Midnight Mass to be celebrated on Christmas Eve. So, St. Francis found a niche in a mountain and set up an altar there. Then, the saint asked Pope Innocent III for permission to have a drama depicting the birth of Christ. The saint was determined to keep the first nativity a solemn occasion, because he did not want to be accused of “lightness or novelty.” So, a special Mass was planned for Christmas Eve in Greccio with a “crèche.” The word “crèche” is most likely a French word derived from Greccio. St. Francis prepared a manger, brought hay, an ox and an ass to the niche. There was a real baby placed on the hay in the crib with Mary and Joseph nearby. It was described that St. Francis stood before the crib with his heart overflowing with tender compassion as he cried out in joy. The Mass was jammed and people were joyful. St. Francis, a deacon, sang the Gospel. In his homily, St. Francis preached to the people of this town about the birth of Jesus, referring to him as “the babe of Bethlehem.” With this Nativity Scene, St. Francis sparked a new devoutness to the birth of Christ and special devotion to the Infant Jesus. St. Francis’ “crèche” was very important since it helped bring the Gospel to all even those without any schooling or advanced studies.

This “crèche” and all of the other signs of Christmas are our hope especially during these difficult times with many people becoming ill and even dying. We are urged, therefore, to recall the true meaning of Christmas which is the birth of the Messiah. When you set up your Nativity Scene, please take a moment to reflect on the humble St. Francis and the new and wonderful way he gave us to celebrate Christmas. In doing so, we should honor the Infant Christ by lending a hand to the neediest, the most vulnerable, the poorest. So, let us reach down into our hearts and reach out to those in most need. As a result, God will once again be born in us and in our midst. Merry Christmas!!!

The Rev. Gus Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Church in Norristown and served as an adjunct professor of Spanish at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. He is a graduate of Norristown High School and attended Georgetown University, where he received B.A. and B.S. in Spanish and linguistics. He has master’s degrees in Spanish, linguistics and divinity from Middlebury College, Georgetown University and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. He holds a Ph.D. in Spanish from the University of Pennsylvania.

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