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Francis of Assisi and the Second Nativity Scene

One scene that commonly appears in front of churches and in store windows at Christmas time is the Nativity Scene. The story of the first Nativity Scene some 2000 years ago is well-known, but who started the practice of remembering that Scene through figurines and sometimes live characters? For that we have to go back almost 800 years to what I call "the Second Nativity Scene"; the first time someone came up with the idea. And the guy who gets the credit is none other than Francis of Assisi.

Francis of Assisi (St Francis for Catholics)(1181 or 2-1226) is mainly remembered today because of a monastic order he founded which bears his name, the Franciscans. The purpose of this order (also known as the Order of Friars Minor) was complete poverty for the monk and preaching and works of charity to the people.

Francis was raised the rich son of a cloth merchant in Assisi. As a boy and young man he engaged in the mindless activities of other wealthy sons. Slowly, after being captured in a local war and after going on a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis decided to give up his former lifestyle and devote himself to God. At first he focused on helping lepers in Assisi and in rebuilding a small church. He soon attracted followers, like-minded men and women who also wanted to minister to others’ needs. The Franciscan Order was officially sanctioned in 1209.

Francis desired to alleviate suffering and to teach people about God. As for teaching, Francis followed the practice of the day, namely to preach. Yet Francis lived in the Middle Ages. This meant that illiteracy was widespread. So most of the people to whom Francis and his followers were preaching received their knowledge of the Bible only from what they heard and saw. The hearing part was easy (preaching), the seeing part more difficult. One attempt at getting the Bible message across visually was through stained glass. To those who could not read, a visit to church would show them the Christian message in the windows of the church or cathedral. For the illiterate peasant, this was his Bible.

Francis was well aware of this problem. He himself could read, remember he had grown up in wealth. And he knew the purpose of the stained glass in the churches. And he himself was preaching to the people. Yet in his pastor’s heart, he wanted a more dramatic way of presenting the Gospel message to people.

Christmas had always been Francis’ favorite holiday, perhaps because of its message of hope to people that a Savior had been born. He realized that he could present this message in a visual form so that the illiterate peasants could better understand what happened on that night so long ago. Therefore, in 1223 Francis and some of his followers took an ox, donkey, and trough filled with hay and reenacted the scene of the birth of Christ. He led the townspeople of Greecio (where he was staying at the time) to this reenactment on Christmas Eve and had a worship service in front of this Second Nativity Scene.

And the rest is history. From one man’s desire to visually represent the scene of Jesus’ birth to illiterate peasants has come to us the practice of Nativity scenes seen around the world every Christmas.

Extra credit: A Nativity scene is also known as a crèche.

©2004 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved