The Poor King


At Christmas time in 1223, St. Francis of Assisi journeyed to a hermit’s cave high on a mountain above the little village of Greccio. He asked the owner, a friend of his, if could use a level place below the hermitage to celebrate midnight Mass, adding that he was planning a pageant to precede the Mass. He hoped the pageant would re-create the scene of the birth of Jesus. With his friend’s help, Francis mobilized the whole village, clearing the site, cutting torches, making candles, and building a manger scene. A family was chosen to play the roles of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Francis recalled a verse from the prophet Isaiah: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey knows the manger of its master.” And so, he borrowed an ox and an ass to be part of the scene. And because Matthew’s Gospel includes soothsayers and Luke’s Gospel mentions shepherds, Francis asked some of the townsfolk to represent them.

On Christmas Eve, the forest echoed with the voices of a large crowd making its way to the cave, their torches lighting up the night. Francis stood before the crib; and with his heart overflowing with love and compassion, he preached about the birth of the poor King whom he called the Babe of Bethlehem. The moving ceremony, designed to strengthen those weak in faith, not only demonstrated Francis’ creative imagination, but helped to popularize the use of a crèche or Christmas crib throughout the Christian world.

On a deeper level, Francis wanted to demonstrate that God came poor among the poor and endured sufferings and discomforts from childhood on for our sake. The Christmas crib loudly proclaims that the Incarnation is a manger of contradictions. The Gospels give us the Christmas narrative, but it was Francis who gave us the picturesque iconography that has come to symbolize the birth of Christ. Unfortunately, over the centuries, the rough-hewn Franciscan crib has been supplanted by a comforting, greeting-card sweetness that conceals the true and revolutionary message of the Gospels.

On that first Christmas night, in silence and simplicity, God became downwardly mobile, embracing humanity and entering into its suffering with boundless love. The very substance of humanity was placed in an animal feeder-box at birth. A king who would never claim any worldly authority was presented to the outcasts of society. Greeting cards erroneously depict the shepherds as gentle, pastoral men. But in Jesus’ time shepherds were ostracized because they were considered to be common thieves who stole animals and illegally allowed their flock to graze on land they did not own. They were despised in Jewish circles and yet they responded to the birth of Jesus with piety and adoration. The message was clear: They understood that this child had come from God to embrace, forgive and save all people.

From the very beginning, Jesus identifies with the poor and the rejected, showing us that God lies waiting where the world never thinks to look. And Saint Francis reminds me to look at my relationship to everything in my life. He makes me take a second look at what “ownership” means. He tells me that everything belongs to God, who in His infinite love allows me to use them. This prevents me from clutching to things as “mine,” and instead fills me with gratitude for the generosity of God who has loaned me I need. That shift in consciousness lifts a tremendous burden from my heart. Rather than holding on to what I own, I enjoy what has been temporarily loaned to me. Everything is gift; everything is God’s. Francis teaches me that I am merely a humble steward gently holding things in trust, enjoying God’s bounty without becoming attached to anything.


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