Did you know we can thank a saint for having nativity scenes? Nearly 800 years ago, Francis of Assisi created the first living nativity scene in a cave, complete with manger, hay, and real animals.
Francis had been to the Holy Land a couple of years before, and perhaps he was longing to again experience that kind of concrete connection to the life of Christ. In recreating the simplicity and humility of Christ's birth, he found a physical way to enter into that manger scene, and to experience anew the miracle of God-made-man, how God took on our very flesh and became a little child out of love for us.
We're so used to seeing nativities that they can become almost trivial, but I think what Francis created must have been striking, and perhaps even a bit shocking. This was no cute, sentimental scene, but a rough and real representation of the cold, dirt, and poverty the Holy Family experienced. At the nativity Francis created, you actually saw a feeding trough, and messy animals, and the lack of any kind of comfort. Just think: the manger where a newborn baby was laid was the place where animals ate. Hopefully the people who saw and smelled and heard and felt these realities understood, in a new way, the miracle of what happened in Bethlehem.
What was this miracle? I would say that it's not just that the God of the universe, in all his power and glory, stooped down to our messy humanity. For sure, this is miracle enough! God in all his wealth chooses to take on our poverty. The saints and Fathers of the Church, though, saw something even more. When we contemplate the poverty of the Christ Child in the manger, we see something new about God himself.
Perhaps we could put it like this: it’s not just that God was rich and then became poor for our sake. Rather, as a baby born in squalor, God shows the inner heart of his wealth. Paradoxically, poverty speaks of the very richness of the God who is love. Poverty, we could say, is wealth, and wealth is poverty, because the true essence of wealth and power and glory is love. A love that goes to the very end, that gives itself totally, that "empties" itself (Phil 2: 6-11). A wealth that is so poor that it does not just give but receives.
God himself, the Giver of all that is, in the humility of his love desires to receive from us. As a poor and helpless child the Son received food and clothing and shelter from Mary and Joseph, received gifts from the magi, received his very flesh from the Virgin Mother. Christ shows us that this “poverty” of dependence and receptivity is true wealth, the generosity and overflowing fruitfulness of love.
Francis, I think, more than most, understood this. He freely embraced a life of radical poverty, with all its grinding hardships, because it seemed to him the closest way to follow the poor Christ, and because it allowed him to completely abandon himself to the providence of God. The physical poverty that Francis lived was the outward sign of his inner poverty of spirit. He entrusted his whole self to God, and in this poverty he found true joy.
Setting up a nativity scene is an example of how Francis loved the incarnational, sacramental aspect of our faith, and how he understood so clearly that all of creation, including the ox and ass and the very straw in which Jesus lay, speaks to the goodness of God.
At CORDA, Michael and I try to do something similar through the scents we create, in order to help connect us to the faith and the saints in a real, concrete way. So, in this Christmas season, it's fitting that we will be launching a new scent inspired by St. Francis of Assisi called "Poverello," meaning "little poor man," the name that Francis called himself.
The Poverello candle will have humble scents of cypress, stone, and earth. Cypress calls to mind the forested area around Assisi where Francis roamed, begging for stones to rebuild God’s church and preaching the peace of the Gospel, while earth recalls his humility and love of creation. The scent of cypress, an evergreen native to central Italy, is also fitting for the season, as it reminds us of the Christmas tree.
Poverello is coming on January 27! Stay tuned on our email newsletter for more detail soon.