In the year of Our Lord, the year of grace 1224, that blessed man St. Francis arranged one of the most beautiful and memorable Christmas celebrations ever. In a hermitage in a forest near the town of Greccio, on a star-spangled, snow-clad night, around 1,000 candle-bearing people made their way to a Nativity scene complete with manger, hay, and Baby, sheep and oxen, braying donkeys, chanting friars and awe-struck children. And there, at that enchanted Midnight Mass,
St. Francis sang the Holy Gospel in his strong, sweet, sonorous voice, and then preached to the people about the poor king in the little town of Bethlehem; his voice sounding like a lamb each time he spoke the word “Bethlehem”. “The vision was not unfitting,” writes Thomas of Celano, “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 by his servant St. Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory”.
In the year of Our Lord, the year of grace 1914, amid the trench-studded stalemate of the First World War, it happened that on Christmas Day the firing stopped, and British and German soldiers crossed their lines to meet each other in No Man’s Land. They talked and sang, and smoked, and even had a football match (The German’s won 4-2!). The Birthday of the Saviour. How could men carry on killing each other on this day, when the Prince of Peace is born? The following couple of days they met again. Might this bring an end to the war? After all, it was stalemate. But it wasn’t to be. The politicians and Generals ordered the firing to start again, and officers threatened to shoot any man who continued to fraternize with “the enemy”. (It was the British officers who were the more eager to re-start the war; Luther having firmly engraved upon the German soul the splendid nature of the Christmas feast).
So, the war started again, and the churches prayed for victory and for the slaughter of the other side. The Pope continued to strive mightily for peace, but the bishops, like the politicians and generals, urged on to victory.
An English poet wrote:
God heard the embattled nations sing and shout
“Gott mit uns” – “God save the king”
“God this”, “God that” – and “God the other thing”.
Or to put it another way: “This is the condemnation, that light has come into the world, and man loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (Jn. 3:19).
Two Christmas’s, two moments of grace, two potentially revolutionary events. Thy Kingdom come, O Lord, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Alas, the church missed the opportunity of the Franciscan revolution, and carried on its usual course of power, prestige, wealth and worldliness. (The “Franciscan Order” became the wealthiest and most powerful in the church, until supplanted by the Jesuits). And the “Christian nations” of Britain, Germany, and France missed the opportunity of that Christmas truce. The next time the firing stopped was four years later, and 11 million men were dead.
If only we would let the Holy Child be born in our hearts; the poor, lowly, meek Jesus Christ. This is what happened to St. Francis. He laid down his arms, put aside his wealth, gave up his ambition and pride, and became a poor man of Jesus and a servant of God.
At that first Christmas 2,000 years ago were shepherds; the poor ones, the outcasts. For: “Hath not God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom, which he hath promised to them that love him.” (Jas. 2:5). The Saviour Himself said, “Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 6:20).
And what of the wise-men, those strange, unknown people called Magi: were they Persians, or Arabians? We don’t know. But look at this amazing thing! Here we have non-Jews, yet hidden believers, “little ones” of the Lord, who secretly and quite outside the boundaries of the Ecclesiam, love Christ, and Christ loves them. They will be found in the Book of Life at the Last Day. They believed in Christ before they saw him, travelling a long and arduous way to be with him. They believed in him when they saw him as a babe on Mary’s lap. They saw no sign of divinity, they saw no miracles to convince them. They had heard no sermons, they hadn’t received the stupendous insights of those popes of academe the “Scripture scholars”. They even had the impertinence not to wait until the “sitz in leben” was explained to them. They fell down and worshipped. They saw a helpless infant on the breast of a poor girl, and worshipped him as God. What faith! Our learned “Biblical exegetes” have the Holy Scriptures before them, which are the manger wherein Christ is found, and yet they have doubt instead of faith. But Truly the Holy Spirit finds the little flock and leads them to Christ. Where were the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scholars and priests at the birth of Christ? “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” (Jn. 1:11) How so very often has it proved to be the case that familiarity with the Sacred can end up in contempt. “Many that are first shall be last….” (Mt. 19:30). There may be many like the Magi in our own day, who are secretly travelling to Christ, unknown to the Church, but beloved of God. They are the hidden commonwealth of Christ.
And what of Bethlehem on that night 2,000 years ago? No-one had any room for a poor pregnant girl and the poor man Joseph. Imagine that! Poor Mary had to have her baby in a barn amid animals, with no midwife, as far as we know. Yet the people of Bethlehem were Jews, not pagans who might have had an excuse for their callousness.
Yet it is ever thus. The world, including the greater part of the Christian church, will nor receive Christ, as he himself testifies (Jn. 14:17). Entire nations imagine themselves to be Christian peoples, and yet have spent most of their history slaughtering each other and oppressing their own poor. Rulers no more want Christ to reign than Herod wanted him to reign. “Put not your trust in princes” (Ps. 145:2) says the psalmist, they are usually to be found as enemies of the Gospel. So the slaughter of the innocents, which begins as soon as Our Lord is born, continues to our own day: wars, revolutions, man-made famines, abortion …. How many millions of God’s children fed to the merciless holocaust unleashed by man’s satanic pride and vanity, his limitless lusts and ambitions. “From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts, that war in your members”, declares the blessed Apostle James (4:1). In the Holy Land today, the very people who claim the covenant privilege of being God’s “chosen race”, these very people, as Zionists, are engaged in the steady genocide of the Palestinian people, and the “little town of Bethlehem” is itself menaced by Israeli tanks and Jewish storm-troopers. How many Palestinian children have been killed? Thousands, as the slaughter of the Innocents grinds on. How many pregnant women in ambulances stalled and denied passage to hospitals, resulting in the death of their unborn? There is no room for them in the inn.
The truth is that if one compares the life of the world at any time, and certainly including the so-called “Christian countries,” , with the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, then one discovers immediately that the greater part of the world is completely opposed to Christ. It doesn’t want his poverty, his lowliness, his meekness, his righteousness, his Cross. If it wants God at all it wants the god of prosperity and military victory: Oliver Cromwell’s god. George Bush’s god, Tony Blair’s god. But whoever is not with Christ is against him (Mt. 12:30). And whoever is against him is Anti Christ; if not so in doctrine, then in life. Calvin once said that the mind of man is a factory of idols. He will make an idol of anything except God.
Where is one to find true Christians? They are a small number, a “little flock” as Our Lord says in St. Luke’s Gospel (Ch. 12 32), and by Isaiah: “the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard …a besieged city … a very small remnant.” (Is. 1:1-9). And if a poor man of the Lord like St. Francis makes no headway with politicians, financiers, and generals, neither do the Lord’s poor make much headway with the likes of the “Franciscan Order”, who are comfortably situated among the rich of the world. Indeed, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a poor man to spend a night at a Franciscan friary. (I speak as an ex-Franciscan friar). No room at the inn. Yet Christ comes as a poor man born among the poor, and whose Gospel is for the poor. (Lk. 4:12)
Christ is born. And his little ones, the shepherds, the Magi; find him. He knows where and who his children are, and is with them at all times, even to the end of the world. What kind of cradle does he desire to be born in? A humble, contrite heart (Ps. 50/51:17). Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. (Mt. 5:3)
I opened with Augustine, therefore I’ll close with Augustine: “Remember this, when people choose to withdraw far from a fire, the fire continues to give warmth, but they grow cold. When people choose to withdraw far from light, the light continues to be bright in itself but they are in darkness. This is also the case when people withdraw from God.”
In the Most Holy Name of Jesus.