On Monday, Pope Francis made a surprise visit to the small hill town of Greccio, north of Rome. It was there, in 1223 that his namesake and patron, Saint Francis of Assisi, set up the first Christmas Crib. Crib scenes or Nativity sets are so common nowadays that it’s easy to miss how significant this innovation by Saint Francis really was.
Pious Christians have always gone on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and venerated the places associated with Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. But then, as now, most people couldn’t afford to go on pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Added to this, in the 1220s, the Holy Land was a dangerous place for Christians, as it was in in Turkish hands. But Saint Francis didn’t want anyone to miss out on the opportunity of experiencing Bethlehem. And so, if the poor couldn’t come to Bethlehem, Bethlehem would come to the poor…. He set up a simple scene, with a carved image of the Holy Infant, and live animals. Saint Francis’s biographer wrote:
"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." [Thomas of Celano, Vita Prima di S Francesco]
And a new Bethlehem has been made in every time and place since then where crib and manger scenes have been set up. That includes this church. It includes the school across the way too. The turkey and plum pudding might all be finished, but the crib is still there. Dare to spend some time before it today. As we come to the end of the Christmas season, today is an opportunity to really do what we sang about in our opening carol: "O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem. Come and behold him, born the king of angels."
Saint Francis’s biographer describes the reaction of the people of Greccio when they saw that first crib scene.
"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." [ibid.]
It sounds like quite a reaction! But what made the people of Greccio so thrilled and excited by that first Nativity scene? It was the simple fact that this rustic and homely display showed them in a new and powerful way what God is like. It was a moment of clarity and new understanding for them. It was as if God said to them: "With all my almighty power, genuinely mine as it is, I am still as poor and humble and trusting as this Child; indeed, not just as this Child, for I really am this Child." [Hans Urs von Balthasar, To Crown the Year]
As you look on the crib, may it be the same for you. May you see not just plaster, resin and straw, but God himself. "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you! … Lift up your eyes and look around."
That kind of revelation or manifestation, where God allows himself to be seen and makes himself known, is what we call epiphany. The entire round of the Church’s year is a series of epiphanies, where we learn anew who God is and how he loves us as we cycle though the feasts and seasons of the year. In all these feasts and seasons, which you will hear announced in song towards the end of Mass, God is…
"… telling us something about himself; in all that the Child is and is to become, the youth, the man, the teacher and worker of miracles, keeping silence before the judge, scourged, mocked, rejected, crying out in his abandonment by God on the Cross, buried, and living forever after having risen from the dead – all this is epiphany, God revealing himself." [ibid.]
The great feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, which we celebrate today, commemorates three separate mysteries, three moments of divine disclosure – Three Great Wonders: the revelation of Christ to the Magi as Light of the Nations; his Baptism in the Jordan when he was revealed by the Father as his Beloved Son; and the beginning of his public life when he changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Three separate moments, but one mystery – the revelation or manifestation of who Jesus is. We will hear about the Baptism and the Wedding Feast on the next two Sundays, so today’s liturgy concentrates on the visit by the wise men from the East.
It’s a mysterious story. It doesn’t tell us who they were or where exactly they came from. They weren’t Jews, so they weren’t expecting or looking for the coming of the Messiah. It’s not clear what they had been looking for. Yet, somehow, they were drawn, led by the light of a star. Drawn to come, despite the great hardship involved: "A cold coming they had of it, at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year, to take a journey, and specially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off in solstitio brumali, the very dead of winter." [Lancelot Andrews, Nativity Sermon 1622]
Francis set up a crib in Greccio, so that everyone could experience Bethlehem. But in a sense, he didn’t need to do that, because the fact is that we – each one of us – are in Bethlehem already. In today’s Gospel, 'we are reading our own story, the history of our own pilgrimage. … [The Magi] struggled through deserts and successfully questioned their way through indifference and politics until they found the child and could worship him as Saviour King.' [Karl Rahner, The Eternal Year] At heart, we are – all of us – searchers and seekers. Whether we are religious or not, of strong, faltering or no faith – consciously or unconsciously – we are searchers. And so the Magi’s story is our story. Their searching led them to an extraordinary encounter – an epiphany – the revelation of God and his glory. My prayer today is that your searching will bear similar fruit.
'It might have been just someone else’s story;They brought gifts… Not toys or things to amuse the child. Not food or clothing to help his parents. Rather, they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. Metal and two types of oily resin are odd things to bring to an internally displaced couple and their new-born… Their gifts were symbolic rather than practical. Gold to proclaim that he is a king, frankincense to honour his divinity, and myrrh to prepare his body for burial: "Solemn things of mystic meaning: incense doth the God disclose, gold a royal child proclaimeth, myrrh a future tomb foreshows."
Some chosen people get a special king,
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In palaces, found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.' [Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons]
So, my brothers and sisters, with Isaiah I urge you: Lift up your eyes and look around. With the caroller I invite you: Come ye to Bethlehem. Come and behold him, born the King of Angels. Come and realise that this child is not just good news for Mary and Joseph, nor even for the the People of Israel only. Rejoice that he is instead Good News for all peoples. Be among those of whom the Prophet spoke when he proclaimed that: Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Rejoice with the wise men from the East in the certain knowledge – proven by their experience – that even those who don’t belong to the tribe or who are not consciously seeking him can find the King of the Nations. Rejoice in the Good News announced in the Second Reading – made real in our Baptism, which we commemorated at the beginning of Mass – that 'the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel'.
And if you haven’t arrived in Bethlehem yet, don’t give up. Keep searching. Take courage from the story of the Magi.
'Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.'