Many people spell Christmas without Christ, the glory of a Holy Day being supplanted by the glitz of a holiday—a problem that reaches back to the days of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was born in 1182 in central Italy, son of a rich merchant. After a scanty education, he joined the army and was captured in war. He came to Christ shortly after his release, and soon he began traveling around the countryside, preaching the gospel. At a February 1209 Mass, Francis was gripped by words being read from Matthew 10: As you go, preach this message: “The kingdom of heaven is near.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff … (NIV).

Francis felt that Christ himself was speaking directly to him. He decided to obey those words as literally as possible, preaching the kingdom and possessing nothing. It is as though a 1,200-year bridge were crossed, putting Francis in the shoes of the original wayfaring apostles themselves.

He spent his remaining days making Christ real to everyone he met—a passion leading to history’s first living nativity scene. On December 24, 1223 Francis found a cave near Greccio, Italy, and brought in animals traditionally associated with the birth of Christ. (Francis loved animals and sometimes even preached to them.) He built the crib, arranged the hay, and finished the scene. Crowds gathered full of curiosity and wonder; and there on Christmas Eve Francis preached the wonder of God made man, born a naked infant and laid in the manger. “Behold your God,” he said, “a poor and helpless child, the ox and donkey beside him. Your God is of your flesh.”

Glitz gave way to glory that evening as the people of Greccio learned afresh how to spell the word CHRISTmas.

She gave birth to her first-born son. She dressed him in baby clothes and laid him on a bed of hay, because there was no room for them in the inn. That night in the fields near Bethlehem some shepherds were guarding their sheep. All at once an angel came down to them from the Lord, and the brightness of the Lord’s glory flashed around them. The shepherds were frightened. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid! I have good news for you … a Savior was born.” (Luke 2:7-11a)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Dec. 24.

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