Francis was drawn to meditate on the humble, self-emptying love of Christ, who left the glories of heaven to become the weakest of human beings. One Christmas in Grecchio, Francis arranged for a manger to be filled with hay and an ox and donkey to be led in: “For I would make memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, and in some sort behold with bodily eyes His infant hardships.”
He gathered the local men and women around the manger and preached a sermon about a poor king born in Bethlehem. One Francis biographer tells us that, “he would name Christ Jesus, aglow with exceeding love, he would call Him the Child of Bethlehem, and, uttering the word ‘Bethlehem’ in the manner of a sheep bleating, he filled his mouth with the sound ... he would lick his lips, relishing with happy palate, and swallowing the sweetness of that word.”
Some in the crowd even saw Francis lift from the manger a sleeping, lifeless infant who awoke in the saint’s arms. His biographer concludes, “for the child Jesus had been given over to forgetfulness in the hearts of many in whom, by the working of His Grace, He was raised up again through His servant Francis.”
So each time we set up a manger scene on our mantel or watch children dressed up as angels and shepherds in a pageant, we follow St. Francis in making Christmas new.
But perhaps we should also use real hay and throw in some donkey dung. Because St. Francis knew the real smells of Christmas, and they were not cinnamon and nutmeg.
In actuality, Christmas smells of weary, unwashed travelers and a crowded stable, of childbirth and filthy shepherds. The sounds of Christmas are bleating sheep being raised for slaughter, of clanging coins collected by occupying soldiers, the groans of a woman in labor and the cries of a newborn. The tastes of Christmas are rough peasant bread, sheep’s milk and, more often, hunger.