Child Shaped God
The Joy of Christmas lies in the wonder of God choosing to step into our world, in simplicity and vulnerability – so that we can step into the world of his alternative kingdom. God chooses to ‘be re-shaped’ as a tiny human child, and in doing so offers us a route for our own ‘re-shaping’ – inspiring us into becoming a ‘Jesus Shaped People’.
Images of this will abound in our churches. Our crib presentations will vary – from home-made creativity, to stunning sculptured figures. However the ‘crib idea’ was first initiated by St. Francis in 1223 – in the town of Greccio, just a few years before he died. One of his followers, Thomas of Celano, records the following:
The manger was prepared, the hay had been brought, the ox and ass were led in. There simplicity was honoured, poverty was exalted, humility was commended, and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem."
What Francis did on the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ near the little town called Greccio in the third year before his glorious death should especially be noted and recalled with reverent memory. In that place there was a certain man by the name of John, of good reputation and an even better life, whom blessed Francis loved with a special love, for in the place where he lived he held a noble and honourable position in as much as he had trampled upon the nobility of his birth and pursued nobility of soul.
Blessed Francis sent for this man, as he often did, about fifteen days before the birth of the Lord, and he said to him: "If you want us to celebrate the present fast of our Lord at Greccio, go with haste and diligently prepare what I tell you. For I wish to do something that will recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem and set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of his infant needs, how he lay in a manager, how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he lay upon the hay where he had been placed. When the good and faithful man heard these things, he ran with haste and prepared in that place all the things the saint had told him.
The manger was prepared, the hay had been brought, the ox and ass were led in. There simplicity was honoured, poverty was exalted, humility was commended, and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem. The night was lighted up like the day, and it delighted men and beasts. The people came and were filled with new joy over the new mystery. The woods rang with the voices of the crowd and the rocks made answer to their jubilation. The brothers sang, paying their debt of praise to the Lord, and the whole night resounded with their rejoicing. The saint of God stood before the manger, uttering sighs, overcome with love, and filled with a wonderful happiness. The solemnities of the Mass were celebrated over the manger and the priest experienced a new consolation.
Then Francis preached to the people standing about, and he spoke charming words concerning the nativity of the poor king and the little town of Bethlehem. Frequently too, when he wished to call Christ Jesus, he would call him simply the Child of Bethlehem, aglow with overflowing love for him; and speaking the word Bethlehem, his voice was more like the bleating of a sheep, His mouth was filled more with sweet affection than with words. Besides, when he spoke the name Child of Bethlehem or Jesus, his tongue licked his lips, as it were, relishing and savouring with pleased palate the sweetness of the word.
The gifts of the Almighty were multiplied there, and a wonderful vision was seen by a certain virtuous man. For he saw a little child lying in the manger lifeless, and he saw the holy man of God go up to it and rouse the child as from a deep sleep. This vision was not unfitting, for the Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many; but, by the working of his grace, he was brought to life again through his servant St. Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory. At length the solemn night celebration was brought to a close, and each one returned to his home with holy joy.
God steps into our world, for the ‘redemption and our re-shaping’ of our world. He invites us to wonder afresh, as with the shepherds – and present the poverty and simplicity of the Child of Bethlehem in common, yet unlikely places, so that we can see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, day by day.