Living nativities–those church-produced (predominantly Protestant) programs that recreate the birth of Jesus with live actors, animals and elaborate props–are wildly popular during the Christmas season, often moving audiences to tears as the birth of the God-Man plays forth in a reverent, tender, and visually-satisfying 3D manner.
We Catholics, however, can take credit for the first living nativity (excluding, of course, the Actual Event), and we owe it all to St. Francis of Assisi.
In 1223, a generous and spiritual landowner by the name of John Vellita donated a piece of land to Francis and his followers. Located on a rocky and windswept mountainside on the outskirts of the town of Greccio, the land afforded Francis and his brothers a grand view of the town below.
Inspired in part by his new surroundings, Francis made an unusual request of John Vellita that December. He wished to recreate the original Nativity scene of Bethlehem for the townspeople. What better way, Francis felt, to welcome the Christ Child than to actually see, hear, and feel the harsh and poor conditions that He was born into. Sentimental stories and artists' renditions were fine, but this "reenactment" would help people understand how God used the ordinary to bring about the most extraordinary happening in human history.
John Vellita eagerly agreed, and soon a manger was set up in a cave on the hill, fresh hay was scattered around, and a donkey and ox were brought up to complete the scene. A simple altar was erected, beneath which lay a wax figure of the Holy Infant.
At midnight that Christmas, Francis celebrated Mass surrounded by the curious townspeople, who had made the trek up the dark mountain with lit torches and faith-filled hearts. As Francis spoke the words of the Mass, emotion overtook him to the point that tears rolled down his face. The onlookers were awestruck at the love and joy and piety that engulfed the humble man at the altar.
Then the miracle happened.
Francis picked up the wax figure of the Baby Jesus, and to the spectators' wondrous delight, the Infant appeared to come to life. He smiled at Francis and stroked his wet cheeks. Francis sighed deeply and was manifestly overcome with joy.
St. Bonaventure, in his biography of St. Francis, reports that the hay used in that "living nativity" cured all sorts of diseases and pestilence in the cattle that ate it over the ensuing months.
Today there is a church on the site where the "Miracle of Greccio" took place. It continues to be a popular place of pilgrimage, especially during the Christmas season.
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!