St. Francis loved Christmas. He loved it so much that in the little village of Greccio, Italy, on a craggy hillside in 1223, he reenacted the nativity. He was not really a big words, intellectual guy. Francis liked to jump in with his whole heart and body. So the story goes that he invited the people from all around to this little cave on a steep hillside to remember the birth of Jesus. With cow and donkey, with people gathered around, they celebrated mass where the baby would lay in the manger.
So in this first creche scene, where usually we place a baby, Francis placed a table around which they celebrated Eucharist together. He reminds us that Jesus, who came as a baby, comes every day in the form of bread-made-Body. Francis preached with great passion about the coming of the poor Christ child into all our lives so fervently that it is written that a friar saw a baby in Francis’ arms.
Visitors from all over the world are welcome to Greccio, and I went this October on a Franciscan pilgrimage. We had mass on that same craggy rock where Francis had celebrated Eucharist and brought to light the truth of the Christ child. Franciscan friars still live and worship there, and as we sat in the dark cave and prayed the smell of their chicken dinner wafted in. It was a reminder of the fullness of life.
As I sat there in the darkness and gazed at the beautiful mural of Francis at the birth of Christ, I realized something profound about being a Franciscan. Francis is dead. He had beautiful revelations of the living God and he brought to life a passion for Christ and creation that has set the world on fire. As I trace the life of Francis, as I walk where he walked, as I carry the title of being a Franciscan sister daily, I cannot actually touch his own experience. All I can do is long for God with my own heart. I can strive to live the burning ember of God’s great love for the world in my relationships, my ministry, my community and my own unique voice in 2021.
God is here and now, still working. My goal as a Franciscan is not to recreate Francis’ life or to even really follow his footsteps. My goal is to follow in the footsteps of Christ who shows up in my life and in our chaotic and messy world.
Following the footsteps of Christ means walking with a wild love right into the messes of today: pandemic, racism and injustice. In my listening ministry, I hear people in deep pain as divisions tear families apart. While children in Afghanistan are going hungry, I ache to love concretely in a way that heals. As my own family and sisters carry their very specific crosses, I want to be more than a follower of Francis. I want to touch the heart of Christ. I want to make Christ’s love visible for those I love. After visiting Greccio, I want to do more than remember the story of Francis. I want to touch God and that precious Christ-child with my own life.
What is the lesson of Greccio for today? As we remember the birth of Jesus, we touch a God who loves us so deeply to reveal that love in human form. How much do I love you? I am here. Look at me. Touch me. Walk with me. Know that you are not alone. This is wild love, a love that St. Francis knew.
If I am honest, I can say that I resist love that is that fierce. I do not feel worthy. But the Franciscan truth is that Jesus came to be with us out of love. God came to be with us not first to save us from sin but to show us the true depth and breadth of a God who loves us wildly. That love was so strong and resisted the oppression of the empire that it led to the cross. Yes, Jesus takes away the power of sin and death. But he became human out of love and to show us a path of love. That is the power of baby Jesus. This is true Christmas love.
St. Francis loved Christmas because St. Francis knew God’s love, and St. Francis loved God. This is wild Christmas love. Let’s enter into the mess together.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Hennessey, FSPA, is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ messy business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for her Franciscan community, poetry and singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse.