We have forever been used to seeing the Nativity scene in our homes and churches, which for many of us it is linked to our intimate childhood memories. It has helped us to relive, somewhat playfully, what happened in Bethlehem and to not only imagine the scenes, but also to see ourselves as part of the story.
But who was behind all this? In the year 1223, Francis had returned from his journey to Bethlehem, and after obtaining permission from Pope Honorius III, he chose the humble mountain village of Greccio to reenact the mysterious event of Jesus' birth.
The similarity of the places with those that Francis had seen in Palestine led him to establish an event that continue to animate our history today. Arriving in Greccio, Francis summoned the entire village and organised a “living nativity scene” by building a manger inside a cave in the woods, where he brought a donkey and an ox, in a backdrop of poverty and simplicity. It was inside the cave that he delivered his famous Christmas sermon, using the occasion to describe the Nativity to all those who could not read.
Francis' intention was to show everyone, especially the poorest, the pure and simple reproduction of the birth of the son of God. The atmosphere of the Holy Night, thus recreated, enchanted and moved everyone. From then onward, the custom of representing the birth of Jesus, live or with statues, spread throughout Italy and the world, becoming the well-established tradition we know today.
For his numerous and long periods of prayer and penance, Francis went to the sanctuary of La Verna, where he received the Stimmate on 17 September 1224. Following this miraculous event, La Verna became the destination of an ever-growing pilgrimage, thus becoming a strongly established reality in the field of religious tourism.
Even before Christmas in Greccio, Francis had expressed the desire to reenact the nativity scene at La Verna. In fact, at the sanctuary, above the entrance to the Corridor of the Stigmata, frescoed with episodes from the life of the friar, there is a representation of the nativity scene painted by Baccio Maria Bacci.
The village of Chiusi della Verna is part of the municipalities adhering to the Emma Perodi Literary Park and the Casentino Forests, which is dedicated to the writer, who set two stories of her masterpiece Grandma’s Stories in these places, namely “The Human Candle” and “Amalziabene’s Skull.”
Perodi wrote in “Amalziabene’s Skull” the following about Francis: “When the blessed St. Francis died, he left among his friars a certain Amalziabene, a half-saint himself, who, even if he did not speak to fish and birds and tame the beasts like the poor man of Assisi, had a heart of gold and felt like dying when he met people in need and couldn’t help them.”
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Photo by Alberta Piroci Branciaroli , crib in the Basilica of La Verna
Translated by Amy K. Rosenthal