Monday, December 16, 2013
The first nativity scene – Francis of Assisi communicates the gospel simply and clearly
Artwork in Chiesa di San Francesco, Maiori, Italy, depicting Francis of Assisi’s cave nativity scene with borrowed ox and donkey, in which he would tell the story from the Bible in everyday language, involving people in costume as Joseph and Mary, and then preach the Good News of ‘The Babe of Bethlehem’
Habbakkuk 2:2 TEV The LORD gave me this answer: ‘Write down clearly on tablets what I reveal to you, so that it can be read at a glance.’
The word that the prophet Habakkuk received was about writing down, clearly and simply, what God told him. That speaks to us about hearing God and journalling what he tells us. However I am picking up here the principle of finding ways to put across the message so simply and clearly that it connects with people. We have been given the this life-changing account of how God sent His only Son, full of grace and truth, into our world as one of us, to transform it. It is the best news ever, and it needs the best telling.
The idea of a nativity scene is actually about 700 years old and the person who came up with it was Francis of Assisi who was, to use our language, on a mission to make the gospel and church relevant. If I believed in praying to saints (don’t go there!) I would probably ask him to help me do the same, because in the 21st century we have the same need.
People in Italy in the 13th century celebrated Christmas by going to mass and hearing a liturgy and Bible readings in a historic language that only the most educated of them could understand: Latin.
People we know here and now celebrate Christmas around the television and think about almost anything but the events that gave us the holiday to celebrate. The birth of Jesus is a story which to them is locked in religion (it was for Francis’ followers also) and our task is to find ways to communicate the message of it in a simple and relevant way.
Francis pioneered this. With permission from the Pope, and help from his friend John Velita, he borrowed a live donkey and an ox and some straw and set up a scene in a cave just outside Greccio, a small town in the hill country of the Apennines. Costumed people played the roles of Mary and Joseph around a central wax figure of the infant Jesus. This was in December 1223, and nearby there were real shepherds watching over their sheep in the fields, not unlike the ones across the Mediterranean to the east who encountered the angels appearing to them and announcing the Messiah’s birth.
Francis’ approach to the Mass was to tell the Christmas story from the Bible and then (unusual for that time) deliver a sermon in the language of the ordinary people gathered there who were part of the scene at the cave. He would speak about the first Christmas and the miraculous impact that placing their faith in Christ, the baby born in a simple manger in Bethlehem, urging them to reject hatred and embrace love, with God’s help.
In his Life of St Francis of Assisi, Saint Bonaventure described what happened on that first night: “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 [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.”
The message stays the same, but each generation needs to find fresh ways to communicate it, so that it resonates with people of that generation. Nativity scenes and dramas remain popular today, but in our self-sufficient and rational world, that makes little room for faith, we need new and creative ways to connect the event of Jesus’ birth with the lives and needs of our friends and neighbours.
We probably need to be as risky and radical as Francis was in his 13th century way of boldly daring to be different.
Francis took ‘church’ outside a church building – to a cave. How could we learn from that?
Francis’ methods of communication were – for his time – different. Think of different and contemporary forms of communication that we might employ.