December 17, 2023 Essay: Matter Matters! Celebrating the Centenary of Greccio

Dec 11, 2023

The global and social darkness of this Advent urges us to understand God’s relationship to creation, both the universe and the world we inhabit. God is not “outside” the whole order of creation. Rather, God dwells in the depths of creation, in our being and becoming. Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., considered matter and consciousness as two aspects of the “stuff” of creation. As this whole enterprise moves forward, Love or God is the unifying influence of existence. Such Love, ‘Incarnating’ within matter, consciousness, history, and personhood in its fulness, is the goal of creation’s becoming. God rises up by means of the energies of Love, bringing a divine presence to the wondrous exchange of the divine/human in the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in us.

Eight hundred years ago, at Christmas of 1223, St. Francis of Assisi went to Greccio, a tiny village in Rieiti, Italy, to celebrate God’s extravagant gift of Love in the birth of Jesus Christ. His vision of a ‘New Bethlehem’ gave rise to the Christmas Creche tradition. Francis shifted the perspective from “we go to the crib” to “ in Christ, the Incarnate God, comes to us.” A manger filled with straw, an ox, and an ass, was placed under an altar on the mountainside. There were no figures of parents, sheep, angels, or wise men! Not even a babe in the feeding trough! His desire was to enact the memory of Christ’s birth out in the open, in an out-of-the-way place, with Jesus Christ as the center-point of human history. Hundreds of villagers from far and near, carrying lighted lanterns, arrived, ecstatic with joy. The forest amplified their songs of jubilation!

For Francis, celebrating the Eucharist over the feeding trough stressed the significance of memory, “ensuring that we don’t forget.” (1 Celano). In his heart, the supreme “memorial” of the Eucharist continues Incarnation—the Body and Blood of the living Christ feeds us today. The Nativity of Greccio opens us to the ‘coming near’ of God. The Spiritual Senses of Joy, Beauty, Awe, Wonder, Love, Gratitude, and Peace engage with the physical senses of Sight, Hearing, Taste, Touch, and Smell. One’s whole being can be absorbed into the intoxication of such extravagant Love. The powerful Love of the Infant draws everyone present, beyond Himself, into communion with God and with one another.

What does this mean for our world today? In retrospect, the Greccio gift appears to be an extravagant, amazing communal experience of nature mysticism. Michael Blastic, OFM, posits that the event may be termed a “ Cosmic Liturgical Dialog.” The dynamism of the living Word made flesh draws Creation, Incarnation, Eucharist, and Humanity into a communion of opposites, becoming the reconciliation referred to by the gospel message ‘Peace on Earth Good Will to All.’’. Humans and creation harmonized in the echoes of the song across the forested valley. In medieval art, the Ox represented the Jewish tradition and the Ass, the ‘Pagan’ tradition, i.e., Muslims and non-believers. Both were depicted as feeding from the trough of the Babe at Greccio! Not much is known about the content of the homily preached by St. Francis during that Christmas Liturgy, except that it proclaimed Peace! Francis was adamant that the celebration witnessed simplicity, poverty (non-appropriation), and humility (respect and reverence). All are welcome! This New Bethlehem offers mutual Love without cost, distinction, or strings attached. Extravagant inclusion in communion is a hallmark of the Incarnation. ‘Fratelli Tutti’!

— Sr. Kathryn King FSP