My family loves Christmas. My wife, being Italian, always decorates our house with beautiful ornaments for Christmas - the focus of all the decorations a simple wooden creche (French for manger) depicting the birth of Jesus. My son played the part of a shepherd in a re-enactment of the nativity story, this last Sunday in church. Both these practices, the display of a creche and a "live" nativity play, go back to the life of the Christian leader, Francis of Assisi. Francis was deeply taken by the miracle of the incarnation and in an attempt to bring his audience back to the simplicity and humility of the birth of Jesus, created the first living nativity play in a small cave in Umbria, Italy in 1223. On Christmas eve of that year, he gathered with other believers to act out the birth of Jesus in all it's impoverished glory. Francis even included two animals: an ox and a donkey. He chose these animals in a materful attempt to reference Isaiah 1:3 which states:
"The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master's crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand."
Bonaventure, the biographer of Francis (died in 1274) tells this story in his "Life of St. Francis" and reports the miracles that came from this "performing of the Gospel":
"It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem. A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep. This vision of the devout soldier is credible, not only by reason of the sanctity of him that saw it, but by reason of the miracles which afterwards confirmed its truth. For the example of Francis, if it be considered by the world, is doubtless sufficient to excite all hearts which are negligent in the faith of Christ; and the hay of that manger, being preserved by the people, miraculously cured all diseases of cattle, and many other pestilences; God thus in all things glorifying his servant, and witnessing to the great efficacy of his holy prayers by manifest prodigies and miracles."
Bonaventure's story contains an important lesson for those interested in Christian Leadership. Francis desired to "perform the Gospel" instead of merely preaching it and thus miracles ensued from this simple event. "Manifest prodigies and miracles" will follow us when we allow the values of Jesus to be "incarnated" in our leadership behavior and practices.
"The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)