December 2002 – On the Nativity

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

December 2002

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the good Lord give you Peace.

Two symbols stand above all others as reminders of the spirituality of Saint Francis of Assisi: the crib and the cross, and what is most striking is their unity. It is as if these rough wooden structures were both hewn from the same tree. Figuratively they are, of course, as expressions of the Tree of Life.

During the Christmas season, we gain a more profound appreciation of the central mysteries of our faith by witnessing the birth of our Savior through the loving eyes of the saint whose genius it was to convey a living depiction of the Nativity scene…the one we now take for granted.

“His highest intention, greatest desire, and supreme purpose were to observe the Holy Gospel in and through all things. He wanted to follow the doctrine and walk in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to do so perfectly, with all vigilance, all zeal, complete desire of the mind, complete fervor of the heart. He remembered Christ’s words through constant meditation and recalled His actions through wise consideration. The humility of the Incarnation and the love of the Passion so occupied his memory that he scarcely wished to think of anything else. Hence what he did in the third year before the day of his glorious death, in the town called Greccio, on the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ, should be reverently remembered.
There was in that place a certain man named John, of good reputation and even better life, whom the blessed Francis particularly loved. Noble and honorable in his own land, he had trodden on nobility of the flesh and pursued that of the mind. Around fifteen days before the birthday of Christ, Francis sent for this man, as he often did, and said to him, ‘If you wish to celebrate the approaching feast of the Lord at Greccio, hurry and do what I tell you. I want to do something that will recall the memory of that child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of His infancy, how He lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.’ Upon hearing this, the good and faithful man hurried to prepare all that the holy man had requested.”
– Thomas of Celano, Vita Prima

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There are signs all around us that Christmas is meant to be a season of joy. Sadly, for many it is a season of disappointment and despair. As the barons of commerce fill our ears with jingles, our eyes with brightly colored lights and our minds with counterfeit sensations, the contrast between what we feel and what we think we should feel sometimes gives rise to forms of grieving. If we are not ourselves afflicted by a phenomenon sometimes called “blue Christmas”, some of our brothers and sisters are. These are the ones whose Christmas table does not look like what we see on glossy magazine covers yet wish that they could be, or whose joy is sapped by the absence of a loved one through death or separation, or whose family harmony is shattered by disputes resulting from resentment and unfulfilled expectations. These are our brothers and sisters, and we must lift them up in our prayers of thanksgiving, and heed the call of the poverello to plant tiny seeds of joy, where there is sadness; hope, where there is despair; and love, where there is anger.

It is no less true for our brothers and sisters of the Beatitudes than for us that we are beneficiaries of divine joy. This genuine joy, which is a gift from God – and often left unopened – can elevate us to the true peace to which we are heirs because of our faith in the Resurrection, a form of Christmas. Indeed to be Christian is to carry joy deep within our hearts even if our minds are wracked with anguish.

Francis knew this, perhaps more than others. He called this weatherproof peace “Perfect Joy.” To be awed by the thought of our Lord who was poor, as we are in spirit, as He lay in the crib, yet to lack Joy is to discard the treasure of the spirituality of the poverello; to experience poverty of spirit bereft of Joy is to desecrate his legacy; and to contemplate Jesus naked upon the cross with compassion yet without the Joy of the Resurrection is to fail the memory of Saint Francis.

Joy is the heart that animates penance and carries it to Redemption in Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. To overlook this transforming lesson regarding Perfect Joy is to leave unopened the original gift of authentic Love, without which all our devotions to Christ crucified are vain. Paul told us that without Love, our deeds are futile; so it is that without Joy, we cannot Love. For Joy contains within its radiance, the splendor of Faith, the resiliency of Hope and the fecundity of Love. Joy is the sole guarantor of humility’s authenticity and of spirituality’s right judgment.

“For Francis, Clare and their brothers and sisters through the centuries the Incarnation has been an unending source of inspiration and admiration…From Thomas of Celano, we learn that the recreation of this birth of Christ at Greccio brought Jesus, human and humble, to life as if the Infant Jesus had been long forgotten in the hearts of people. The nativity scene was a striking affirmation of God’s entry into the mundane, everyday life of poor people, the world of creation, of straw and of rocks.”
– William Short, Poverty and Joy: The Franciscan Tradition

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The Nativity of our beloved Redeemer is such a special event that it occurs on countless levels. The simple story that we have heard time and again conveys layers of meaning…all of which tell us much about what it means to be human…about God’s place in our lives…and about the journey that we are to take in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary; of the poor shepherds, as in the Gospel of Mathew; and of the Three Wise Men or astrologers, as in the Gospel of Luke.

Perhaps the most significant thing is that the shepherds and wise men saw a great light – a light in the darkness. The meaning is clear. God entered our lives at a moment of great darkness, just as in these times of darkness today. He entered the world in this most remarkable way to guide us out of the darkness that surrounds all of humanity as a community and ourselves as anguished individuals. He became the light in our darkness, the hope amid the despair that surrounds us, and the meaning that illuminates our confused lives. Saint Francis taught us that the antidote to this confusion is holy simplicity, the spiritual flower that springs from the poverty of Bethlehem.

Hope is the active ingredient of light in the darkness. It is the operative principle of faith and the basis for love amid inhospitable surroundings. It is said that those who grieve at the loss of a loved one, for instance, rely on hope more than they do on faith or love. Hope ties faith and love together and keeps them alive.

A striking fact about the birth of our brother Jesus is the humility of the surroundings. Jesus was not to be found in the fine homes of those with fame, power and riches, but rather in utter simplicity…as accessible as could be…by either poor working men…or respected and educated men…provided they were willing to journey a distance to see Him. Though He was worthy of receiving gold, frankincense and myrrh, He was content to be “wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.”

When we read the Gospel, we often come away with the feeling that what Jesus asks of us is very complicated. That is because of our vantage point. We start from a very complicated position. He is, in fact, calling us to simplicity…not as a burden, but as a gift…indeed, He told us that His burden is easy…and this is the key to all the rest…simplicity. Simplicity requires humility, and a proper understanding of what humility means. Humility is not the same thing as low self-esteem. Rather, humility is an honest appraisal of our capabilities and limitations. It invites us to use our many gifts in ways that build up the community, which we call the Kingdom or Family of God. Indeed, humility is such a powerful engine of spiritual development that it is key to Perfect Joy. In humility, our soul is one with Jesus, who taught us to be humble and to trust in the Father’s power to succeed in all things, as witnessed by His Resurrection.

“The Nativity message is the message not only of joy but of the joy…The Great Joy …which all the people of the world have always expected without fully realizing what it is…Now, in the Nativity of Christ, the Great Joy is announced, in which all the ambiguities are swept aside and all men are confronted with the clear possibility of a decision that will not only help them to put together the pieces of lives wrecked in individual failure but will make sense out of the lives of all men of all time.”
– Thomas Merton, who died 34 years ago this month

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May Faith and Hope raise your eyes to the Light of Bethlehem. May your heart hear the Prince of Peace calling you by name to the Christmas celebration of Love. And, as you journey toward the awesome Light, may the great Joy of the poverello be your constant companion.