For Love of the Christ Child: The First Nativity Play

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Not too long ago, I stood in a place far away from home and definitely out of my normal routine. I traveled to a remote cave high up in the hills of Italy. You see, my husband and I were on a pilgrimage, following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi. Anyone who follows in his footsteps climbs rocky paths and squeezes into cramped spaces. Our first stop was Greccio — site of the first Nativity scene.

In the year 1223, St. Francis had an idea unlike anything man had yet conceived. He would create a manger scene to show how the Christ child came into the world in complete poverty and simplicity.

This is what St. Francis told a friend.

I want to do something that will recall the memory of the Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how ox and ass stood by.

On that Christmas night long ago, St. Francis gathered hay in a manger and led an ox and donkey to their appointed places. He summoned people of the town. They came running through the forest carrying torches and singing glorious songs that reverberated through the forest. At the Nativity scene, it is said that the great saint held a wooden doll in his arms that miraculously came to life in his arms.

As I gazed on the stone grotto that served as the first Nativity play, I felt like a witness to the exuberance of St. Francis, to his passionate love for the Incarnation, for the Christ child.

Biographers tell us that St. Francis was born in a cave, slept on rock ledges, and used boulders as pillows. To this day these rock pillows are considered relics and are kept in enclosures behind iron bars. In the most concrete way, St. Francis wanted to remember the “inconveniences” of Christ, even when he laid his head down to sleep.

Christmas will have deeper meaning for me this year. I will carry my old wooden stable down from the attic, place ceramic ox and ass on a bed of real hay from our barn and string tiny white lights over the roof. Thanks to St. Francis, the birth of Christ will be as real to me as that rough cave in a little Italian village called Greccio.


Copyright 2019 Kathryn Swegart

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About Author

Kathryn Griffin Swegart and her husband raised three children on a gentleman’s farm in rural Maine. Kathryn, a professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order, is the author of Heavenly Hosts: Eucharistic Miracles for Kids and Perilous Days, both awarded the Catholic Writer's Guild Seal of Approval. Visit her website at KathrynSwegart.com.

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